Rebel fighters, families evacuate pocket of south Damascus for northwestern Syria

AMMAN: More than 1,000 rebel fighters and their families reportedly arrived in Syria’s opposition-held northwest on Tuesday after evacuating an isolated pocket of territory in south Damascus within a surrender agreement with the Syrian government.

“Between 1,500 to 2,000 civilians and fighters departed” the south Damascus district of al-Qadam by bus starting on Monday evening, Zuhair a-Shami, a citizen journalist who was part of the evacuation told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

A second resident said “roughly 500 fighters” left among the evacuees. He asked not to be identified by name because he stayed behind in al-Qadam.

Syrian government forces entered and took control of the formerly rebel-held pocket of territory in al-Qadam on Monday night following the evacuation, a commander for Ajnad a-Sham, the rebel faction which negotiated the agreement with the Syrian government, told Syria Direct on Tuesday from one of the buses.

The convoy carrying evacuees from south Damascus arrived in the northern Hama countryside, the entry point into Syria’s rebel-held northwest, on Tuesday afternoon, local, pro-opposition media reported.

Fighters and families from al-Qadam arrive in Hama province on Tuesday. Image courtesy of Khaled a-Sheikh Yousef.

The evacuation of opposition fighters from al-Qadam comes as the Syrian government appears to have renewed its focus on regaining control over rebel-held territories just outside the capital.

Al-Qadam sits just 10km southwest of the opposition-held East Ghouta suburbs, where the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied forces have wrested large swathes of countryside, towns and villages from rebel groups in the past several weeks. Damascus intensified attacks on East Ghouta last month in an ongoing aerial and ground campaign that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead and many more injured.

Al-Qadam district is part of a larger section of south Damascus that government forces first encircled in mid-2013.

The Islamic State (IS), Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and various Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated factions each control parts of encircled south Damascus, with a series of crossings linking the pockets.

Ajnad a-Sham controlled a portion of al-Qadam until Monday's evacuation. The district is now split between Islamic State and Syrian government control.

The departure of rebel fighters from al-Qadam allegedly came after Syrian government representatives gave rebel fighters a “48-hour window” to reconcile with the Syrian government, leave for northern Syria or face military action, local pro-opposition media outlet Revolution Spring reported on Monday. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the report.

Syrian state media has not reported the evacuation of rebel fighters from south Damascus.

The military commander for Ajnad a-Sham who Syria Direct spoke to on Tuesday would not comment on negotiations with the Syrian government or the terms of the surrender agreement.

Al-Qadam district in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Local Council of Qadam.

The Syrian government has struck a series of similar evacuation and surrender deals in rebel-held settlements near the capital over the past two years, often following prolonged bombardment and siege.

Previous agreements in towns such as Darayya and Madaya included the evacuation of rebel fighters with light weaponry and their families, the return of state authorities and institutions and a grace period in which residents of the suburb may settle issues related to compulsory military service.

Islamic State attacks

During Monday night’s evacuation from al-Qadam, Islamic State fighters stationed directly to the east attacked “positions abandoned by Syrian opposition groups,” the IS-linked Amaq news agency reported.

The Moscow-funded media outlet Russia Today claimed on Monday that IS fighters seized two formerly rebel-held positions in south Damascus during the handover of the pocket, citing local correspondents, but added that Syrian army soldiers were then able to regain those positions.

“Intermittent clashes” between IS fighters and pro-Assad forces in south Damascus continued on Tuesday, Revolution Spring reported. The pro-opposition news outlet, which is based in south Damascus, said government forces launched missiles and artillery shells at IS-held districts.

Syrian state media has not reported fighting with the Islamic State in south Damascus.

Reported government shelling of IS-held territories in south Damascus prompted families to seek shelter in rebel-held areas immediately to the east on Tuesday, Fadi Shubat, a resident and journalist in the opposition-held eastern half of the south Damascus pocket, told Syria Direct.

“I’d estimate that 300 families arrived since this morning alone to take refuge,” said Shubat.

Additional reporting by Lina al-Abed and Elissar Nader.

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.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Alaa Safwan

Alaa is from Homs. She studied chemistry at Al-Baath University in Homs, but left Syria before she could graduate. Since 2012, Alaa has lived in Jordan, where she completed her studies. She joined Syria Direct to enter the world of journalism, develop her skills and discover a new path in life.