AMMAN: Opposition fighters began evacuating the final rebel-held districts of the Syrian capital on Thursday, sources on the ground told Syria Direct, with at least 5,000 opposition fighters and civilians reportedly set to depart for other rebel-held territories in the coming days.
When completed, the evacuation deal to empty south Damascus of rebel fighters will leave the Syrian capital clear of opposition forces for the first time since the war began in 2012, leaving only a handful of Islamic State (IS)-controlled Damascus neighborhoods outside of state control.
Fifty government-operated buses arrived in the opposition-controlled town of Yalda in south Damascus on Thursday, Syrian state news outlet SANA reported. At least 32 buses loaded with “hundreds of evacuees” reportedly left the rebel pocket later the same day.
Thursday’s evacuations—headed for the northeast Aleppo city of Jarablus controlled by Turkish-backed rebels—were to include roughly 1,350 civilians, Fadi Shubat, a Yalda-based journalist told Syria Direct.
Evacuation buses in the FSA-controlled town of Yalda on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Revolution Spring.
Russian military police also entered Yalda on Thursday to oversee the evacuations, Shubat said.
Syrian state media reported that 5,000 fighters and civilians were scheduled to leave southern Damascus over the next three days, while pro-opposition media outlets and activists on the ground estimated the total number of evacuees as high as 17,000. Syria Direct could not independently confirm either figure, and an opposition negotiator did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The south Damascus deal, reportedly brokered by Russian mediators and agreed upon by rebel and Syrian government negotiators, mirrors a series of similar recent agreements in opposition-controlled regions in and around the capital.
In March and April, a series of evacuation deals saw the entirety of the east Damascus suburbs, for years an opposition bastion, cleared of rebel fighters and returned to state control. Residents and fighters who refused to live under state rule in East Ghouta—many of them fearing for their safety—departed for the country’s rebel-held northwest, Syria Direct reported at the time.
One reported term of the south Damascus agreement that sets it apart from similar deals is the possibility of an evacuation of some fighters and civilians to opposition-held southern Syria.
A commander with the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-aligned south Damascus rebel faction Jaish al-Ababil told Syria Direct that roughly “200 families” with ties to the faction were to head for opposition-held Daraa province rather than the northwest.
The proposed evacuation to Daraa is the result of “an agreement made with the Russians,” the commander said, adding that the majority of Jaish al-Ababil’s forces are in the country’s rebel-held south. He asked that his name not be published, as he is not authorized to speak to the press.
A member of Jaish al-Ababil’s media team based in the Daraa town of Jasem told Syria Direct that a final agreement had not yet been reached with Russian and government negotiators, adding that the faction’s forces in south Damascus would leave for either Daraa or Jarablus “in the coming days.”
Syria Direct could not independently verify the terms of the evacuation deal.
Syrian government forces first encircled south Damascus—a collection of towns, villages and a major Palestinian refugee camp—in mid-2013. Control of the besieged area is currently split between the Islamic State, a handful of FSA-affiliated factions and Jaish al-Islam.
A small number of fighters from the hardline Islamist coalition Ha’yat Tahrir a-Sham previously controlled sections of Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus, but were evacuated to northwest Syria under an evacuation deal earlier this week, Syria Direct reported.