Largest Syrian rebel group starts leaving Damascus enclave

BEIRUT (AP) — The most powerful Syrian rebel faction on the fringes of Damascus began abandoning its stronghold in the once rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta on Monday, opening the way for government forces to secure full control of the area, after seven years of revolt.

The first fighters from the Army of Islam left the town of Douma around midday as part of an evacuation deal that will hand the town to the Syrian government, reported the state SANA news agency. The rebels were headed to Jarablus, a town in northern Syria where control of the territory is shared between Syrian rebels and Turkish forces. 

The Syrian government dispatched more than 50 buses to Douma to take the rebels out, SANA reported. By mid-afternoon, eight buses had departed, with 448 people aboard — rebel fighters and their family members.

There was no immediate comment from the Army of Islam. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the civil war through a network of activists on the ground, also reported the evacuation.

Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory’s director, said some factions within the Army of Islam oppose evacuating and surrendering Douma to the government of President Bashar Assad. The deal over Douma would mark the end of a weeks-long push by Assad’s forces to consolidate their control over eastern Ghouta, just outside the capital.

Douma was one of the earliest centers of the anti-government demonstrations that swept through the country in March 2011. Syrian government forces responded by putting the town and other suburbs around Damascus under siege, bombing hospitals and residential areas, and blocking the entry of food and medical relief.

Local activists have said that over 100,000 civilians are trapped inside Douma, which has suffered devastating damage. The most recent Syrian air and ground offensive on eastern Ghouta, supported Russia’s military, killed at least 1,600 people, according to the Observatory. More than 120,000 others fled their homes and sought safety with the government, according to Russia’s military operation in Syria.

Russia is a key backer of Assad. Over the past weeks, as Syrian forces reclaimed towns and villages in eastern Ghouta, they gave rebels and men of fighting age the choice of accepting amnesty and serving in the Syrian military conscription, or relocating to rebel-held areas in northern Syria. More than 40,000 rebels and their family members chose to relocate, according to the Russian military.

Turkey, with support from rebels, is running its own military operations against a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which controls territory along the frontier. On Sunday, the Syrian government-linked Central Military Media outlet said that once the evacuations were completed, a local council for Douma would be formed with the approval of the central government.

Syria’s seven-year bloodletting has left around 450,000 killed. More than 11 million people — about half the country’s prewar population — have been displaced from their homes, including over 5 million who are living as refugees outside Syria, according to the United Nations. The U.N. has estimated the material cost of the war damage at close to $250 billion.

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