Jaish al-Islam, which has been defending the eastern Ghouta town of Douma against a ferocious onslaught by Russian-backed Assad regime forces, has not confirmed the agreement with the regime.
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 underliningBashar al-Assad’s unassailable position in the war.
It will mark his biggest victory over the opposition fighting to unseat him since the recovery of eastern Aleppo in 2016.
Indicating divisions in Jaish al-Islam, a Syrian military source told Reuters some of the fighters were rejecting the deal and the regime army would use force unless they accepted it.
“They will all have to agree to the settlement in the end,” the source said.
Regime news agency SANA said: “Twelve buses carrying 629 Jaish al-Islam terrorists and their families exited Douma… in preparation of them being transported to Jarabulus,” using the government’s term for all rebel fighters.
But journalists on the ground said both the regime and the opposition fighters had restricted access to the evacuation operation from Douma.
‘We will stay’
The opposition has 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.
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 Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
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.
Pile of suitcases
Before February 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 air strikes, 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 regime media.
On Monday before dawn, an AFP correspondent saw men, women and children step off buses in the area of Qalaat al-Madiq in central Hama province, a way station on the road to Idlib.
An old woman dressed head-to-toe in black stood by a pile of suitcases, with a child wearing a winter coat and colorful backpack by her side.
A man had a gun slung on his shoulder as he picked up a travel bag, while a young boy, who appeared weak and unable to move his limbs, was carried into an ambulance.
A man in a long white robe walked on crutches, a light weapon visible under his khaki jacket.
Syria’s war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with a brutal repression of anti-regime protests.