AMMAN: For the first time in nearly two months, 27-year-old Muhammad al-Marhoum took a long walk through the streets of his hometown, Douma, just east of Damascus this week.
“There is bombing, but very little compared with before,” al-Marhoum tells Syria Direct. “I can wander around town.”
Douma is the last remaining rebel-held city in East Ghouta, a collection of working-class suburbs outside Damascus that the Syrian government forces encircled in 2013.
A months-long pro-government assault on East Ghouta, followed by back-to-back surrender and evacuation deals in several cities and towns, has now largely cleared the eastern suburbs of rebel forces. Douma, the de facto capital of East Ghouta and home to the rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, stands alone.
Today, an uneasy calm hangs over Douma as rebels and civilian representatives from the besieged city negotiate with Russian intermediaries behind closed doors. Pro-Damascus media outlets report that government forces are gathered just outside the city—poised for a “massive military operation” if talks break down.
Meanwhile, Douma’s estimated 70,000 residents wait to learn their fate—evacuation to the north, a final battle or a political solution—with a mixture of dread and anxiety.
“The atmosphere is depressing,” says al-Marhoum, who works as a doctor in a local intensive care unit. “There’s a lot of confusion—everyone wants a solution.”
A resident sifts through rubble in Douma on March 19. Photo courtesy of Firas Abdallah.
A handful of Douma residents told Syria Direct this week that few concrete details are emerging about the closed-door negotiations and they are worried about what the future holds.
While Jaish al-Islam maintains that a civilian committee is in charge of negotiations with the Syrian government, the faction released statements in recent weeks denying that any evacuation deal would be considered.
“We are currently negotiating to stay—not to leave,” Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Beriqdar told Syria Direct on Thursday morning. The ongoing negotiations are “moving in a positive direction,” he said, but declined to provide further information.
“There are minor details that can’t be shared with the public,” said Beriqdar, adding that secrecy was needed to “safeguard” the negotiating process.
Syria Direct reached out to three of the five members of Douma’s civilian negotiations committee over the past week. All said that they were not authorized to provide the press with any details about the ongoing talks.
A ‘state of anticipation’
The final government push to eliminate the longstanding rebel presence east of Damascus began at the end of December, as Syrian and Russian warplanes launched an intense air campaign against East Ghouta.
The tempo of the bombardment only increased in the following weeks, reaching a fever pitch in mid-February and killing more than 1,700 civilians as pro-government troops swiftly advanced beyond rebel defenses and cut East Ghouta into three isolated sections.
Facing massive bombings and likely military defeat, the rebel factions Ahrar a-Sham and Failaq a-Rahman both agreed over the past week to surrender their sections of East Ghouta to the Syrian government and evacuate to Syria’s opposition-held northwest.
Tens of thousands of civilians and fighters boarded government-operated green buses and left East Ghouta in recent days. The evacuation agreements mirror deals between the government and opposition in other besieged, rebel-held settlements in recent years, including the December 2016 evacuation of thousands of fighters and residents from the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo city.
Thousands of other East Ghoutans rejected displacement, choosing instead to head for shelters in government-held territory and sign on to an ambiguous reconciliation process.
But as civilians and fighters elsewhere in East Ghouta leave their homes—for the north or for government-run shelters—Douma residents wait.
Residents walking through the streets of Douma on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Douma Local Council.
“Everyone, myself included, is waiting for any news from the committee,” Anas a-Shami, a 32-year-old teacher from Douma, tells Syria Direct. “I’m really anxious about what will come out of the negotiations.”
A-Shami wants to stay in Douma, but is not optimistic about the outcome of the negotiations.
“We won’t be selfish and stay here if it means our children will die,” says the teacher, whose eldest son was killed in an airstrike in late January. “I would rather leave than stay in my city with my son’s killers.”
Approximately 1,700 Douma residents exited the encircled city through a Russian-backed humanitarian corridor north of the city on Wednesday alone, Syrian state media reported. They joined an estimated 80,000 other East Ghouta residents who have fled into government-held territory since March 9, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on Wednesday.
But while Douma residents have the option to leave and reconcile with the Syrian government, the half dozen residents Syria Direct spoke to this week said they did not believe they would be safe if they did so.
“As an activist, it is impossible for me to go back to regime control,” Bayan Rehan, a former member of Douma’s civilian local council, tells Syria Direct. “Even with international guarantees.”
For Rehan and other committed opposition activists, their participation in the revolution that began seven years ago and outspoken views against the Assad government make reconciling with Damascus a difficult prospect.
“I will not throw myself into the arms of death, even if there were guarantees otherwise,” says Douma teacher a-Shami. He says he is wanted by the government for participating in pro-opposition demonstrations.
“I will not reconcile with the regime,” he adds. “I will not forget what it did to East Ghouta.”
Unable or unwilling to reconcile with the government, residents such as a-Shami know that their fate depends on the outcome of negotiations that they know little about.
For now, all medical worker Marhoum hopes for is to stay with his family in Douma for as long as he can. Fearing he may have to leave soon, he says he wants to walk down “every single street” in his city, committing them to memory.
“In all honesty, I’m saying goodbye.”