BEIRUT (Reuters) – The last Syrian rebel group in eastern Ghouta near Damascus began withdrawing on Monday under an agreement with the government, state media said, though a military source said a group of insurgents were still rejecting a deal with the state.
Jaish al-Islam, which has been defending the eastern Ghouta town of Douma against a ferocious onslaught by Russian-backed Syrian government forces, has not confirmed the agreement with the government.
Indicating divisions in the group, a Syrian military source told Reuters some of the fighters were rejecting the deal and the army would use force unless they did. “They will all have to agree to the settlement in the end,” the source said.
If confirmed, the departure of Jaish al-Islam from Douma would mark the end of the war for eastern Ghouta, wiping out an opposition stronghold near Damascus and underlining President Bashar al-Assad’s unassailable position in the war.
Syrian state TV said eight buses carrying 448 people – fighters and their families – had left Douma so far on Monday, en route for the north. State media has said the rebels are due to go to areas near the Turkish-Syrian border that are controlled by opposition groups.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said dozens of buses had entered Douma early on Monday in readiness to evacuate the rebels and their families to the northern towns of Jarablus and al-Bab, near the Turkish border.
The towns are located in a section of the Turkish-Syrian frontier where Turkey has carved out a buffer zone controlled on the ground by its military and allied fighters from Free Syrian Army rebel groups that are hostile to Assad.
Under the deal, Syrian state media said Jaish al-Islam would hand over heavy and medium-sized weapons and acknowledge the restoration of the Damascus government’s control of Douma.
The government lost control of Douma, the largest urban centre in the eastern suburbs of Damascus in insurgent hands, in the early phase of Syria’s civil war, now in its eighth year.
(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; additional reporting by Firas Makdessi, editing by Tom Perry/Gareth Jones)