Syria Rebels Prepare To Quit Enclave On Damascus Doorstep

Capturing eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, would be Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's biggest victory over the rebels since driving them from Aleppo in December 2016.

More than 105,000 people have left the militant Eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of the Syrian capital city of Damascus ever since government forces and allied fighters from popular defense groups launched a wide-scale offensive last month to purge the region of foreign-sponsored Takfiri militants.

Four major rebel groups are now positioned inside Eastern Ghouta, namely the Islam Army, Failaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Levant Liberation Committee, known as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

The deal provides for "the transfer of almost 7,000 people, fighters and their families" from an area in the south of the enclave held by the Islamist group Faylaq al-Rahman, state television said.

The agreement will see a southern stretch of territory that includes the towns of Zamalka, Arbin and Ain Tarma cleared, while talks are under way over the third and final pocket, around Ghouta's main town of Douma.

There was no immediate confirmation from Faylaq al-Rahman on whether their fighters were going to Afrin, but the faction is known to be backed by Ankara.

Laerke said: "we help those tens of thousands of people who are fleeing and coming out, and as I mentioned the other day, they come out in a really awful state of mind, and physical condition, it's disgusting".

Many had their bags already packed in readiness for leaving their hometowns and heading northwest to Idlib, the last province still largely under opposition control.

It said the move would allow talks with the Russian military, Syria's ally, on guarantees for the safety of civilians.

It is Syrian government policy to refer to rebel groups as terrorists.

The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said that before leaving Harasta, Ahrar al-Sham members had blown up a weapons depot, injuring four Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers, who were providing assistance to locals.

An additional 7,000 civilians and fighters are expected to evacuate Idlib Saturday morning, state news outlets report.

Al-Ikhbariya TV on Friday showed hundreds of men, women and children heading out on foot from the Wafideen crossing that links the rebel-controlled town of Douma to Damascus.

The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Syrian army forces and their allies have controlled 90 percent of Eastern Ghouta.

Another person released said "they used to beat us, keep us hungry and place us underground in the cold and we did not know when they would kill us".

The French Presidency said in a statement Saturday that President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan the day before and French leader said he "had very clearly expressed" his concerns as soon as the Turkish military operation in the Kurdish Syrian enclave of Afrin started.

Student Layal al-Jumaa who lives in a Damascus neighbourhood that overlooks Harasta woke up Saturday after a full night's sleep uninterrupted by bombardment.

  • Jon Douglas