Syria War: Rebels Start Evacuating Last Stronghold Near Capital

According to media linked with the Assad regime, this past Monday, civilians and rebel fighters began to leave Douma, the largest town in the Eastern Ghouta suburb, and also the last stronghold of the rebel groups near Damascus. Local activists revealed that a deal, brokered by Russia, has been struck between the rebels and the government, under which the rebels would not only depart Douma for northern Syria, but also give up heavy weapons. This agreement signaled a significant victory for the Assad regime. There was no confirmation of the deal from the rebel groups, but fighters from Failaq al-Rahman, a group affiliated with the rebels, have evacuated the towns on Saturday and quit Douma on Sunday, partially giving some credence to the deal. Up until now, tens of thousands of Syrians have left Ghouta, while it is still unclear how many of Douma’s approximately 100,000 residents would agree to leave.

Ghouta was captured after joint ground and air operations, lasting as long as six weeks. It could be regarded as the government’s most influential win since the seizure of Aleppo in 2016. The Assad regime has now taken control of all the area surrounding the Syrian capital. With that accomplished, president Bashar al-Assad is attempting to continue capturing areas held by the opposition however, it is not clear how Assad can retake areas further from Damascus. Indeed, as the Beirut-based senior analyst Sam Heller said, “[t]he fall of East Ghouta is another step towards Assad’s consolidation of control in Syria’s center, but the areas still beyond his grasp on the country’s edges are caught up in complicated regional and international politics.”

In fact, before the Syrian civil war that started seven years ago, Douma was a bustling commercial centre. However, it was also the main centre of massive street demonstrations against the Assad regime in 2011. Since then, government forces have carried out siege campaigns, bombardment, as well as ground offensives in the area, with an aim at inflicting considerable damage on the rebel side. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has openly described the place as “hell on earth.” To make matters worse, offences have been particularly fierce and intensive recently and according to a UK-based monitoring group called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 1,644 civilians were killed during those recent operations. Besides this, 400,000 civilians were deprived of food and medical supplies and tens of thousands were forced to abandon their homes. Fortunately, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights believed that now this deal could give the rebel fighters, together with their families and other civilians, enough time to safely depart for rebel-held areas in the north. In the meantime, Pope Francis also paid significant attention to the suffering of people in Ghouta. In his Easter message, he appealed, “Today we implore fruits of peace upon the entire world, beginning with the beloved and long-suffering land of Syria.”

It is a relief to find out that Douma no longer suffers from airstrike and ground offensives, as the rebels have retreated. However, the most urgent thing for the regime is not to push forward and fight on. Instead, the government should focus on rebuilding the town by providing the residents with sufficient supplies and good sanitary conditions among other crucial things. Humanitarian aids from international charitable organizations should also be allowed to help. As is discussed, retaking more territories from the opposition could involve significant amount of ground and air operations by the government, as well as possible retaliation actions by the rebels. Both would impose a huge pain on the vulnerable civilians. Consequently, to avoid them suffering from what the Douma residents have suffered from in the past several years, it is crucial for international actors to mediate and strike a peace deal between the government and the rebels.