‘Deal reached’ for rebels to leave Douma after bloody weekend, suspected chemical attack

AMMAN: Fighters in the last opposition-controlled city in East Ghouta reached a deal with Russian negotiators on Sunday to evacuate with their families, one rebel official told Syria Direct, after intense bombardment and a reported chemical attack killed at least 225 civilians over the weekend.

Under the reported agreement, all rebel fighters with the Jaish al-Islam faction in Douma city and any civilians wishing to leave are to evacuate the eastern Damascus suburbs for opposition-held northwestern Syria in coming days, a member of the faction’s media office told Syria Direct on Sunday.

The media official requested that his name not be published, as he spoke to Syria Direct without authorization from Jaish al-Islam, which has not officially announced an evacuation deal.

Syrian and Russian state media both reported that a deal was reached on Sunday for rebels to evacuate Douma. Russia is a longtime backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and was a party to recent negotiations with rebel factions in East Ghouta.

For weeks, Jaish al-Islam has maintained that it would not accept any agreement with Russia or the Syrian government that included the evacuation of fighters from Douma.  

Sunday’s reported evacuation deal followed two days of intense bombardment and a reported chemical attack that local first responders said killed at least 85 civilians and injured more than 1,000.

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Douma city on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Douma City.

“It’s a catastrophe,” Mansour Abu al-Kheir, a member of the civil defense, told Syria Direct via Facebook on Sunday. “No words or pictures can describe what civilians have lived through these past two days.”

At least 225 civilians were reportedly killed in Douma city over the weekend, a member of the Douma Civil Defense told Syria Direct on Sunday. Violence surged after negotiations between the Syrian government, Russian negotiators and Douma-based rebels broke down on Friday.

More than 400 Russian and Syrian airstrikes hit Douma since Friday, the Outer Damascus Civil Defense reported.

On Saturday evening, hundreds of civilians displaying “symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent” were taken to Douma medical centers, the Syrian-American Medical Center (SAMS) and the civil defense said in a joint statement the following day. SAMS supports medical facilities and staff in Douma.

Pictures circulated on social media showed the bodies of men, women and children—purportedly dozens of victims of Saturday evening’s attack in Douma—piled on top of each other in underground basements.

Both Syrian and Russian state media denied any chemical attack on the rebel-held city. Damascus-run SANA referred to reports of a chemical strike in Douma as “fabrications,” while Russian state media outlet TASS “strongly rejected” reports that a gas attack had taken place in the city.

Children receive treatment after a reported chemical attack in Douma on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Douma City.

Coinciding with unconfirmed reports of a deal between rebels and Russian negotiators, bombings were largely paused in Douma on Sunday afternoon, local sources said.

Even so, doctors in the rebel-held city reportedly struggled to treat a backlog of hundreds of injured civilians, medical and emergency personnel told Syria Direct.

Recent bombings overwhelmed Douma’s medical and emergency response staff after large numbers of doctors and first responders left the city for northwestern Syria in partial evacuation deals over the past two weeks.

Douma’s remaining doctors and emergency personnel are “almost totally paralyzed before the massive numbers of injured,” said Doctor Muhammad a-Shami, who declined to provide Syria Direct with his real name or the name of the hospital where he works, fearing future pro-government airstrikes.

“Only a handful of doctors remain,” Fahad Hanan, a doctor and Douma resident who works in the surgical wing of one of the city’s hospitals, told Syria Direct on Sunday. “We’ve been working in the hospital for two days straight.”

“It’s a disaster.”

With additional reporting by Mohammed Al-Haj Ali and Ghina al-Ghabreh

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

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.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.