Last Eastern Ghouta Rebels Poised to Surrender

AMMAN (Reuters) -
A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, Friday. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)

The group in control of the last rebel bastion near Damascus appeared on Sunday to have agreed a deal for its fighters to make peace with the government or quit the eastern Ghouta enclave, Syrian state media said.

Jaish al Islam, most of whose members are drawn from the area, has been defending the city of Douma against a months-long onslaught by government forces.

If confirmed, its surrender or departure for rebel-held areas in northwest Syria would herald an end to large-scale conflict in the enclave.

State media and Syrian newspapers said information indicated that, under the deal, the group would hand over heavy and mid-sized weapons and acknowledge the restoration of state sovereignty over Douma.

A Hezbollah run-media unit said on Sunday an agreement had been reached after several days of negotiations to spare bloodshed in Douma.

The unit of the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia that has been fighting with the Syrian army said among the terms of the deal was setting up a Syrian government-approved local council to run the city’s affairs after rebels withdraw.

It also said a Russian-led committee with representatives from Turkey, Iran and Russia, the three guarantors of the Astana peace talks who set up “de-escalation” zones across Syria, would be responsible for handing over prisoners of war jailed by the rebels.

Jaish al Islam had no immediate comment on the reports but responded to earlier claims by the Syrian government that it was negotiating a deal to stay and not to pull out of the city.

The government lost control of Douma, the largest urban center in the eastern suburbs of Damascus in insurgent hands, in the early phase of Syria’s civil war, now in its eighth year.

If confirmed, the agreement with Jaish al Islam would mirror others reached by insurgents following heavy bombing of areas under their control by government forces and Russian jets that has killed hundreds of civilians.

Late on Saturday, negotiators reached a deal to evacuate wounded Jaish al Islam civilians and terrorists to Idlib in the northwest.

A group of stranded terrorists from another terror group, Failaq al Rahman, who had fled to Douma from advancing army troops at the start of the latest campaign, left the city on Sunday, state media said.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said 24 buses carrying around 1,200 fighters from Failaq al Rahman and their families left Douma on Sunday in the first such pullout of terrorists.

On Saturday the rebel group concluded a week-long evacuation of thousands of its terrorists from areas it had controlled in other parts of the enclave.