Season of evacuation to the north: The green buses come for West Ghouta

AMMAN: Hundreds of rebels and residents from the last major opposition enclave in the West Ghouta suburbs of Damascus arrived in Idlib province on Tuesday as part of a deal with the regime, the latest in a series of surrenders and mass evacuations near the Syrian capital.

Since August, a handful of rebel-held towns around Damascus have surrendered to Syrian government forces after facing prolonged sieges and bombardment. As part of the deals in Darayya, al-Hameh, Qudsaya and Moadamiyeh, thousands of rebels and residents have been evacuated, taken northwards to Idlib province on now-infamous, lime-green public buses.

On Monday, the latest surrender agreement saw dozens of green buses pick up 1,000 rebels and civilians in Khan a-Sheh, a regime-blockaded Palestinian refugee camp-turned-town 25km southwest of Damascus that is home to 12,000 people.

The deal stipulates the evacuation of all rebels in the Khan a-Sheh area—including Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, Ahrar a-Sham and several Free Syrian Army groups—to Idlib province, alongside their families. Other rebels scattered in the nearby towns of al-Taybeh, Zakia, Kiswa and al-Maqaylibah, and any civilians wishing to go to Idlib, are also included.

Khan a-Sheh is the last major rebel holding in the rural West Ghouta area of Outer Damascus. It is also the only rebel territory on the Salam highway, which extends from the capital to regime-held territory in northern Quneitra province.

While Syrian government forces and their allies now control most of the large, agricultural region west of the capital, opposition factions had retained a presence in a cluster of West Ghouta towns before this week’s evacuations.

 Rebels and residents prepare to leave West Ghouta. Photo courtesy of Zakia Local Council.

Opposition military and civilian sources told Syria Direct this week that an estimated 2,000 people will be evacuated from West Ghouta to Idlib in the coming days. Some 1,000 rebels and their families boarded green buses on Monday, with the rest slated to leave in subsequent runs. Some local news sites have reported a higher number of evacuees, up to 3,000 in all.

The first group of evacuees left from Khan a-Sheh on Monday night. The 29-bus convoy’s long, winding journey northwards to Idlib took roughly 20 hours.

The trip was not without incident. One bus carrying evacuees overturned in the Hama countryside on Tuesday morning, reportedly killing one woman and injuring other passengers.

This week’s evacuation of the West Ghouta rebels follows months of siege, ground fighting and bombardment in and around Khan a-Sheh.

Syrian government soldiers and their allies launched a ground offensive to take control of the rebel-held West Ghouta towns last month. With most rebel forces concentrated around Khan a-Sheh, the camp bore the brunt of the assault. Residents told Syria Direct earlier this month that opposition brigades were not based in Khan a-Sheh proper, but were stationed in farms at the edge of the camp.

By mid-November, regime forces—aided by hundreds of barrel bombs, artillery shells and missiles—advanced to within three kilometers of Khan a-Sheh.

“The regime was implementing a scorched-earth policy,” a rebel commander currently in West Ghouta told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity. “It was a war of extermination, a strangling siege.”

The bombs stopped falling and the advance halted just over one week ago when a negotiating committee made up of members of different rebel factions based in the Khan a-Sheh region began negotiating with Syrian government representatives.

“In the negotiations, the regime had the upper hand because it was winning on the ground,” a rebel commander currently in West Ghouta told Syria Direct on Monday.

The rebels, the commander said, took the deal last week “to save the civilians and stop the bloodshed.”

As a result, Khan a-Sheh became the latest Outer Damascus town to capitulate to what opposition activists have termed a “kneel-or-die” strategy by Syrian government forces and their allies to recapture rebel-held territory through a mixture of military force and siege.

 One bus overturned in the Hama countryside en route to Idlib on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Khan a-Sheh al-Ikhbaria

Syrian state media agency SANA reported on Tuesday that truce operations in all remaining rebel areas in West Ghouta had reached “advanced stages.”

Under the deal, West Ghouta rebels handed over their heavy weapons to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), pro-regime Al-Masdar News reported on Sunday. The agreement also stipulated the release of 28 “kidnapped” individuals, including 11 soldiers and an officer, according to the website.

One rebel commander currently in Khan a-Sheh who says he will leave in the coming days told Syria Direct that the factions near the camp did hold prisoners who were “captured in previous battles” between two and seven months ago.

In Khan a-Sheh, unlike other Outer Damascus towns that signed on to similar deals in recent months, Syrian state institutions and personnel will not return to the town after the rebels leave. While the text of the agreement is not public, one rebel commander told Syria Direct that regime negotiators made “assurances” that protection and control of the town would be turned over to committees made up of Khan residents.

Assurances aside, “civilians are afraid the regime will enter the camp anyway,” Omar a-Shami, a citizen journalist in Khan a-Sheh told Syria Direct on Monday.

“People are upset about areas being turned over to the regime, one after the other,” Abdullah Zakia, a resident of the town neighboring Khan a-Sheh told Syria Direct.

“They’re afraid that the regime could betray them in the days to come.” 

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.

Osama Hmaidi

Originally from Azzaz in northern Aleppo province, Osama studied political science in Damascus before moving to Jordan in 2013.

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.