Assad forces mobilize around Douma as rebels await Russian decision

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Thousands of people departed Eastern Ghouta for Syrian opposition territory near the Turkish border on Tuesday, the third group to leave under a deal brokered by Russia to surrender the enclave near Damascus to the Syrian regime.

Regime forces were also mobilizing around Douma, the last opposition-held town in Eastern Ghouta, a war monitor reported, piling pressure on the insurgents holed up inside to cut a similar deal.

The Jaish Al-Islam group, which has so far refused to leave Ghouta, said Russia had yet to give an answer to proposals that involve its fighters and civilians staying in Douma, adding that a meeting was expected on Wednesday.

Opposition fighters have been leaving other parts of Ghouta in batches with their families since Thursday, accepting safe passage to the Idlib region in the northwest after they were beaten into retreat in a fierce assault by the Russia-backed Syrian Army.

It marks the biggest defeat for the rebellion against President Bashar Assad since insurgents were driven from eastern Aleppo in 2016, underscoring his unassailable military position in the seven-year-long conflict.

Some 7,000 people — most of them fighters and their families — left on 100 buses in the early hours of the morning, the observatory said. More buses drove into Eastern Ghouta ahead of a further evacuation.

“We faced two choices: go to Idlib or make peace with the regime,” said Sakhr Yousef, a 24-year-old fighter with the Failaq Al-Rahman faction as he was preparing to leave Eastern Ghouta with his wife and four young siblings.

“Making peace with the regime is very difficult, making peace with those who bombed us with criminal Russia,” he added in a voice message to Reuters, referring to Assad’s main backer in the conflict.

The rebels being evacuated on Tuesday are leaving from a tract of territory centered around the towns of Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka that was controlled by Failaq Al-Rahman fighters.

The last remaining insurgent-held area in Ghouta is the town of Douma. The UN said it is highly concerned for 70,000-78,000 people it said were trapped inside.

The group that controls Douma, Jaish Al-Islam, is in talks with Russia that have yet to yield a result.

“We have presented our decision to stay. This is not only a decision by Jaish Al-Islam, but by all the revolutionary institutions and figures in Douma,” said Hamza Birqdar, the group’s military spokesman.

Backed by Russia and Iran, the government has repeatedly forced rebels to surrender areas and withdraw to Idlib. The opposition has called this a policy of “demographic change” aimed at forcing dissidents out of Syria’s main cities.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said more than 80,000 people had left formerly besieged parts of Eastern Ghouta as control shifted since March 9.

The displaced “have to proceed to collective shelters and are not permitted to leave, until they have undergone a screening process and are able to prove a sponsor,” OCHA said in a situation report.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on Tuesday that the displaced people were at risk from communicable diseases and said procedures for people to leave the shelters “should be accelerated.”

“Many children who are already extremely weak are being exposed to further health hazards like diarrhea, lice and skin diseases. We have seen many children who had to walk many kilometers barefoot or in completely worn-out shoes,” the ICRC said in a statement.

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