Evacuations around Damascus continue as thousands depart encircled city of Dumayr

AMMAN: Thousands of civilians and rebel fighters evacuated the encircled, opposition-held city of Dumayr, northeast of Damascus, on Thursday, bringing the Syrian government closer to full control of the capital and its outskirts.

Approximately 1,800 civilians and 700 fighters with factions Jaish al-Islam and the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo left Dumayr on a bus convoy heading for Jarablus in Syria’s rebel-held north, Saeed Seif, a Jordan-based Ahmad al-Abdo spokesman, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

Thursday’s evacuation was part of a surrender agreement between Jaish al-Islam and the Syrian government that was first announced by state media outlet SANA on Tuesday, when rebel fighters began to hand over heavy and medium weapons.  

Once evacuations from Dumayr are complete, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units are to enter to “comb the town and clear it of landmines,” in preparation for the return of all state institutions, SANA reported on Tuesday. SANA put the number of total expected evacuees at 5,000 people, including 1,500 fighters and 3,500 civilians.

Civilians and fighters prepare to depart Dumayr on Thursday. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Dumayr’s surrender came just days after the Syrian government seized full control of the capital’s East Ghouta suburbs—a rebel stronghold for years—following a string of similar evacuation deals.

But unlike East Ghouta, the rebel-held city of Dumayr—which lies next to a government air base at the foot of the East Qalamoun mountain range 40km northeast of Damascus—has been relatively quiet since 2016, when a ceasefire agreement took effect there.

Nonetheless, Dumayr was in a state of “confusion and chaos” on Thursday morning, resident Qutaiba Naqrash said, as young men tried to decide whether to stay and settle their status with the government or leave indefinitely.

Naqrash, who spoke to Syria Direct via WhatsApp, had already made his decision to leave because he is wanted for government military service.

“I bid my mother farewell, as tears fell down her cheeks,” said the 24-year-old. “She wants me to stay beside her, but she also wants to ensure my safety.”

Men who are wanted for military service, which is required of all Syrian males between the ages of 18 and 42, have six months to settle their statuses with the government should they choose to stay in Dumayr, resident Saad al-Hussein said on Thursday.

Al-Hussein, 30, who said he is also wanted for conscription, told Syria Direct he plans to remain in the city despite hearing reports that similar guarantees were “violated” in other areas where evacuations took place.

“The two options are bad,” he said. “If we leave for the north, we’ll face a very difficult life. If we stay, we’ll live in danger.”

A bus carrying evacuees exits Dumayr on Thursday. Photo courtesy of SANA.

As buses departed Dumayr on Thursday, the SAA and allied forces advanced against rebel factions positioned in the neighboring, encircled East Qalamoun region, pro-government media outlet Damascus Now reported.

The advances came one day after a barrage of government airstrikes killed at least six people in East Qalamoun, according to local civil defense forces.  

Despite an uptick in violence on the ground in East Qalamoun, negotiations regarding the opposition-held area’s fate continued in Damascus on Thursday, rebel spokesman Seif told Syria Direct.

Official negotiations between Russian representatives and the rebels’ Unified Command, which includes the Ahmad al-Abdo brigade, began on Tuesday, Syria Direct reported.

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.

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.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.