Opposition fighters begin leaving Eastern Ghouta

Syria’s regime drew closer to taking full control of Eastern Ghouta on Monday as state media reported that fighters began evacuating the last opposition-held pocket of the former opposition stronghold near Damascus.
A Russian-brokered deal had been reported on Sunday for fighters with Jaish Al-Islam, the largest opposition group still in Ghouta, to leave the enclave’s main town of Douma.
But the fighters have not yet confirmed the agreement, amid reports of divisions in the group as hard-line militants refuse to abandon their posts.
The retaking of Eastern Ghouta would mark a major milestone in Bashar Assad’s efforts to regain control of territory seized by opposition factions during Syria’s seven-year civil war.
Meanwhile, a senior US Republican senator on Sunday warned President Donald Trump against pulling American troops from Syria, saying it would lead to a resurgence of Daesh and increased Iranian sway over the Syrian regime in Damascus.
“It’d be the single worst decision the president could make,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on the Fox News Sunday program.
“We got ISIL (Daesh) on the ropes. You want to let ‘em off the ropes, remove American soldiers,” Graham said.
Assad’s forces have retaken 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta since launching a blistering assault on the besieged enclave on Feb. 18, killing 1,600 civilians and displacing tens of thousands more.
State media on Monday said Jaish Al-Islam fighters and members of their families had started leaving Douma in preparation for them heading to an opposition-held town in northern Syria.
“Twelve buses carrying 629 Jaish Al-Islam terrorists and their families exited Douma … in preparation of them being transported to Jarabulus,” state news agency SANA said, using the regime’s term for all opposition fighters.
But journalists on the ground said both the regime and the opposition fighters had restricted access to the evacuation operation from Douma.
Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan said in an editorial on Monday it was a matter of hours until Douma was declared a “town empty of terrorism.”
“The town of Douma has come closer to joining other villages and areas of (Eastern) Ghouta taken back by the army,” it said.
The fighters have been negotiating with Russia, a key ally of Assad, for days on an agreement to evacuate Douma.
Late on Sunday, Russian news agency Interfax quoted General Yuri Yevtushenko as saying a “preliminary deal” had been reached to evacuate Jaish Al-Islam fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group on Monday reported divisions within the ranks of Jaish Al-Islam, which has previously said it would not leave Douma.
“There are attempts to convince the hard-line wing of Jaish Al-Islam not to obstruct the agreement with the Russians,” said the head of the Britain-based monitor, Rami Abdel Rahman.
In video footage published by Jaish Al-Islam online on Sunday, the group’s leader told a group of men in a mosque he would stay put.
“We will stay in this town and will not leave. Those who want to leave should leave,” Essam Al-Buidani says in the video, although it was unclear when it was filmed.
Jaish Al-Islam counts around 10,000 fighters, according to the Observatory.
Backed by Russia, Assad’s forces have scored a series of victories over opposition forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment and ground offensives that have drawn widespread international condemnation.
Before Feb. 18, some 400,000 people in Eastern Ghouta had lived under regime siege for five years, facing severe food and medicine shortages.
After pounding it with airstrikes, regime forces have taken back most of the enclave through a combination of ground assaults and Russia-brokered evacuation deals.
In the past few weeks, these deals have seen more than 46,000 people — fighters and civilians — board buses with scant belongings to be driven to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is largely outside regime control.
These include more than 1,000 people — fighters from another faction, Faylaq Al-Rahman, and family members — who left Douma late Sunday, according to state media.

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