Rebels, residents board buses to evacuate east Damascus neighborhood

AMMAN: Hundreds of rebels and their families boarded government buses and left the opposition-held east Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh on Monday as part of a Russian-brokered deal to evacuate fighters and willing residents to northern Syria, a local council member told Syria Direct.

An estimated 10,000 residents, rebel fighters and their families are due to leave Barzeh over the course of the next three weeks under the supervision of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Abu Bahaa, a member of the town's local council told Syria Direct.

The evacuations will take place in eight rounds, with residents having the option to go to either opposition-held Idlib province in northwest Syria or Jarablus, a city in northern Syria currently under the control of Turkish-backed rebel factions.

“Anyone who wants to leave can leave, and whoever wants to stay in Barzeh can stay,” Abu Bahaa said on Monday.

 A Syrian girl and her family wait to board buses for rebel-held Idlib province in Barzeh on Monday morning. Photo courtesy of Saria Abu Zaid/AFP.

Residents wishing to remain in Barzeh must reconcile with the regime, a process by which those formerly hostile to the government request amnesty. For those who stay behind, they will not be permitted to leave Barzeh, the councilman said.

The deal comes after nearly two months of government siege and heavy bombardment of Barzeh and the adjacent rebel-held neighborhoods of Tishreen and al-Qaboun, just a few hundred meters north of the besieged opposition stronghold of East Ghouta.

Smuggling tunnels

Rebels in Barzeh, a small rebel-controlled neighborhood in eastern Damascus, initially agreed to an informal ceasefire deal with the Syrian government in early 2014, along with the adjacent neighborhoods of Tishreen and al-Qaboun.

The ceasefire largely kept violence away from the three neighborhoods, allowing rebels to build a system of smuggling tunnels connecting besieged East Ghouta and Barzeh, Tishreen and al-Qaboun.

Barzeh became a crucial entry point for goods smuggled into encircled East Ghouta until this past February, when the Syrian government violated its truce and encircled the three neighborhoods. Thus began a campaign to wrest control of the districts from the rebels.

With Barzeh, Tishreen and al-Qaboun tightly encircled, the regime stopped goods from entering the three neighborhoods. Without supplies flowing into East Ghouta, the regime successfully halted the smuggling tunnels from the ground up.

With the tunnels closed and the three neighborhoods encircled, the regime advanced on the area, and by May 6 reduced rebel-controlled Barzeh to an area less than one square kilometer in size.

 Rebel fighters and residents wait to board government buses in Barzeh, Monday morning. Photo courtesy of Barzeh Media Center.

‘The best option’

Rumors of an evacuation deal surfaced several days ago, but the details were officially released on Sunday night, council member Abu Baraa told Syria Direct.

Barzeh joins a host of other neighborhoods surrounding the regime-held capital that have surrendered in recent years.

At the end of March, Madaya and Zabadani—two rebel-held towns northwest of Damascus—agreed to an evacuation deal with the regime after a crippling two-year long siege. More than a half dozen other towns in the Damascus area have been similarly evacuated.

“The agreement [in Barzeh] will not be much different than previous ones in other areas,” said Abu Baraa.

Abu Baraa told Syria Direct that negotiators had pushed the government for a third evacuation option—to nearby East Ghouta—but have not received a response. For now, two more rounds of evacuation are scheduled, one to Jarablus on Wednesday, and another to Idlib on Friday.

“We don’t know what is hidden in the agreement, and we don’t know what else the regime is planning,” said Abu Baraa.

“Leaving is the best option.”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.