Syrian rebels evacuate Damascus suburb in deal with government
Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Reuters, Oct 13 2016
AMMAN – Hundreds of insurgents and their families have left two rebel-held towns on the northern outskirts of Damascus under a deal with the government. The army gave community leaders in Qudsiya and al-Hama an ultimatum to get several hundred fighters out of their towns or face a large-scale assault. The government says such amnesties are a “workable model to bring security and peace.” Fourteen buses left the towns carrying around 400 fighters and their families in a total evacuation of over 2,000 people in two days to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, a resident said. Yousef al Hasnawi, a resident on the local rebel council:
They gave us little option: leave or all hell breaks loose.
The deal follows August’s surrender of Daraya, a few km southwest of the capital. Daraya’s fall put pressure on other besieged rebel strongholds. Shortly after the fall of Daraya in Western Ghouta, hundreds of rebels in nearby Mouadamiya were forced out. The army has in recent days escalated bombing of Eastern Ghouta, which has been in rebel hands since the uprising began in 2011. It has also been bombing the besieged Khan al-Sheeh, a rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp in Western Ghouta. The evacuation deals have been criticized by the UN, which says they set an alarming precedent for the forced resettlement of civilians of besieged areas where starvation has been used as a weapon to force rebels to surrender. Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haider said the government wanted the UN to oversee the evacuation of Qudsiya, to see how local truces were pacifying hotspots around the capital. He said:
The UN did not want to participate. We did not exclude them. We wanted their presence, at least as a witness to see how we are working on a workable model to bring security and peace.
Opponents of the evacuations say majority Sunni areas are being repopulated with Shi’ites. The Turkey-based opposition Syrian National Coalition said:
These are forced displacements that seek to change the population’s makeup with full support of the Iranian and Russian occupiers.
Qudsiya and al-Hama lie along a strategic route to the Lebanese border, where Hezbollah is consolidating its presence to secure an arms and troops supply route to Damascus.