A child waits in a bus, evacuating fighters and civilians from the two besieged Shi'ite towns of al-Foua and Kefraya in the mainly rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, to cross to Turkey from the Syrian-Turkish border crossing of Bab al-Hawa, December 28, 2015. Under the deal, the fighters fro.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Members of Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian rebel group, agreed to leave a suburb of Damascus on Wednesday and be bused to an area of northern Syria controlled by rebels and Islamists.
The reported agreement between the rebels in Harasta and the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Russia comes after weeks of a major regime offensive against the remaining rebels near the capital.
According to various reports, 1,500 Ahrar al-Sham fighters and their 6,000 family members will head north to the Idlib province in a convoy of buses.
These kinds of deals have marked the last year and a half of war in Syria, in which the rebels have lost one after another of their strongholds.
Rebel spokesman Munther Fares was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that the Russians had helped broker the deal and that the regime would guarantee the safety of the evacuees along their 300-km. drive north. The estimated 15,000 civilians who will remain in Harasta have been guaranteed that they will not be harmed.
The area affected by the agreement is known as Harasta and is the smallest of three enclaves held by the rebels in the suburbs of Damascus. North of Harasta, fighters from Jaysh al-Islam are still holding onto Douma, and south of Harasta, fighters of Faylaq al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – which was once al-Qaeda in Syria – are still fighting in several neighborhoods. The three enclaves were once part of a large rebel- held area called eastern Ghouta, but the regime has succeeded in taking back 80% of the area. Thousands have been killed and wounded over the last weeks.
Although the agreement foresees the rebels moving to northern Syria, there is a large area also held by rebels in southern Syria which is closer to Ghouta and would seem a more logical destination.
The area held by the Syrian rebels in the south is just 50 km. to the south of Harasta. However, the Syrian rebels in the south are more closely connected to Jordan and more moderate than those in Idlib.
“We heard Ahrar al-Sham accepted to go to the north because there are Ahrar al-Sham in the north [in Idlib] and it is logical to join the same group,” a well informed Syrian source said. However, civilians trapped in Ghouta have no such options.
ACCORDING TO informed sources, thousands of civilians have already fled eastern Ghouta toward the regime-controlled area. These civilians are now under the regime control. “They have no choice to go north,” said a Syrian who is familiar with the situation.
Regarding the south, the source said that if Jaysh al-Islam agreed to an evacuation, it would more likely go to the south, not the north because it does not have as good ties with rebel groups in Idlib. These agreements also relate to the regime’s own calculations. It has preferred to concentrate what remains of the rebels, particularly more Islamist groups, in Idlib.
Meanwhile, rebels fired rockets from eastern Ghouta into Damascus on Thursday, killing two people, state media reported. Television showed burning projectile parts on streets and in parks.
Government air strikes pummeled parts of eastern Ghouta on Thursday morning, striking Arbin and Zamalka and killing 19 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group.
An army officer interviewed on state television urged rebels who had not yet negotiated a deal to quit. “Death is coming for you if you do not surrender,” he said.
With the Turkish army now setting up observations points in northern Syria and playing a larger role after pushing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) out of Afrin, there is a contiguous area of rebel control in eastern Syria. It appears the regime would like to solidify this status quo.
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Turkey will drive the YPG militia away from the Syrian border if it does not reach an agreement with the United States on a plan to remove the group from Syria’s Manbij region.
“If this plan is not realized, the only option left will be clearing away terrorists.
This is not just valid for Syria, but also for Iraq,” he said in an interview with state-run Anadolu news agency.
He added that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Donald Trump would speak by telephone on Thursday.
Reuters contributed to this report.