Members of the last remaining and most powerful rebel group in the besieged Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus are leaving, according to Syrian state media. But an activist countered the government’s narrative, saying the evacuees were humanitarian cases – not all members of the group.
Twenty buses carrying 1,065 Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families left Douma for Al-Wafideen Crossing on Monday. They headed to Jarablus in northern Syria, the Syrian Arab News Agency said.
On Tuesday, the news agency said preparations were being made to evacuate a “second batch” of Jaish al-Islam “terrorists and their families.” A CNN crew in Syria witnessed half a dozen buses leaving Douma, with the government saying passengers are Jaish al-Islam rebel fighters.
“The evacuation process is subjected to thorough inspection where buses and luggage are searched and the names of the terrorists are verified to prevent them from smuggling any civilian or military abductees, and to make sure that the terms of the agreement are not violated regarding the personal firearms they are allowed to carry with them while they are leaving,” the agency reported.
The removal of Jaish al-Islam would be a milestone for the Syrian regime, which has assailed the rebel-held area for weeks to regain control of the battered region.
But there is skepticism over the state-run reports because representatives of Jaish al-Islam have told CNN and said on social media they have been negotiating with the Russians, ally of the Assad regime, and are trying to reach a deal that allows them to stay in Douma.
They have not commented on how such an agreement can be forged. Jaish al-Islam has not confirmed the Syrian media reports, and it is not known whether the regime media are accurate.
Bilal Abu Salah, a media activist in Douma, said Tuesday that the convoy of buses entering Jarablus contained humanitarian cases, including injured members of Jaish al-Islam.
Salah said there has been no deal between Jaish al-Islam and the Russians, except for the evacuation of people on humanitarian grounds. He said the rebel group insists on staying in Douma to continue talks with the Russians.
Over the weekend, members of the armed rebel group Failaq Al-Rahman were evacuated from Douma toward Idlib, Syrian state-run TV reported. Failaq Al-Rahman has a limited presence in the area, as opposed to Jaish al-Islam, which is believed to be more dominant in Douma.
Eastern Ghouta has been under siege since 2012, but a renewed government assault that began in mid-February reportedly has left more than 1,000 civilians dead.
The Syrian government has advanced steadily into Eastern Ghouta, starting with villages and towns in the east before regime forces split the rebel-held areas of the suburb into three parts last week.
Many in Eastern Ghouta, where close to 400,000 people are living, have taken refuge in makeshift underground shelters.
The offensive has been carried out with the support of Russia and in defiance of a UN call for a ceasefire.