After relentless bombardment, two northwest Damascus towns give up and the evacuations begin

AMMAN: More than 600 rebels and their families left two northwest Outer Damascus towns on Thursday in buses headed for rebel-held Idlib province, the first group of residents to be evacuated under a deal with the regime after two weeks of bombardment, ground fighting and negotiations.

Al-Hameh and Qudsaya, neighboring, rebel-held towns roughly 10km northwest of the Syrian capital along the Damascus-Beirut highway, had been negotiating a truce with the regime amidst heavy aerial and ground bombardment since the latter attempted to storm the towns in late September.

As negotiations continued, at least 10 people were killed with dozens injured. The bombings struck the two towns' only hospitals, part of what one rebel negotiator characterized to Syria Direct last week as a “kneel or die” strategy.

In response to the bombardment and deteriorating conditions in the Free Syrian Army-held towns—encircled by loyalist forces since this past July—residents reportedly “pressured” negotiators to accept a deal offered by the regime late last month to reestablish control of the towns, the same anonymous negotiator told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

The deal stipulated that all rebels in al-Hameh and Qudsaya hand over their medium and heavy weapons and either surrender and sign an amnesty with the Syrian government or leave the towns for Idlib province. In return, all roads into and out of the towns would be opened, with state municipal services restored.

 Qudsaya residents on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Kareem.

Despite some initial reluctance, rebels took the deal this past Saturday after loyalist forces advanced and captured a strategic part of al-Hameh.

Lists of those wanting to leave were drawn up, and a ceasefire began on Tuesday.

“The opposition became more responsive when faced with the fait accompli imposed by the latest developments,” the rebel negotiator told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

A total of 2,500 residents of the two towns are due to leave the towns for Idlib province over the next few days, the negotiator said, including 525 rebels from Qudsaya and 114 from al-Hameh.

Not all those who want to leave the towns will be allowed to do so, “because they are not gunmen,” the negotiator told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “For example, those wanted for compulsory military service or the reserves in the regime forces, who have not joined any factions” will have to stay, he added.  

Those wanted for military service have six months to present themselves to regime conscription offices if they are not eligible for a deferral.

‘A bitter pill’

As of publication, 14 buses holding hundreds of rebels and their families were winding their way northwards through Syria, heading towards rebel-held Idlib province.

“Without the oversight of the United Nations, there are no real guarantees that we will arrive safely in Idlib,” Omar, a rebel from al-Hameh told Syria Direct on Thursday from one of the buses.

While the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) oversaw Thursday’s evacuation, there was no United Nations presence in the towns.

 A bus waits outside Qudsaya on Thursday morning. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

“We only get involved in evacuation operations when requested by all parties and in accordance with international humanitarian law and protection standards,” a spokesman for the Office of the UN Secretary General told Syria Direct last month.

Omar, the rebel on the bus, says he is leaving al-Hameh to protect his family.

“I left with my family to take care of them,” said Omar, “and to safeguard the lives of my people remaining in al-Hameh,” referring to the bombardment of the town in recent days.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”

For some residents, the evacuation of rebel fighters from al-Hameh and Qudsaya appears to be part of a broader attempt by the Syrian regime to remove pockets of resistance near the capital.

“The regime wants to secure the edges of Damascus,” Samer a-Shami, a citizen journalist and member of the al-Hameh LCC told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“After Darayya, it’s al-Hameh and Qudsaya’s turn,” said a-Shami. “Let observers wonder whose turn is next.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.