THU 17 - 1 - 2019
Date: Apr 6, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Evacuations of Syria’s Douma suspended
BEIRUT: Evacuations from the rebel-held town of Douma near the Syrian capital were suspended Thursday, days after hundreds of opposition fighters and their relatives left for areas of the country’s north as part of a surrender deal following a massive government offensive.

Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces were gathering around a southern part of Damascus ahead of a planned operation against Daesh (ISIS) militants there, activists said.

State news agency SANA said the suspension was due to disagreements within the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, adding that buses that entered Douma for the evacuations Thursday returned without passengers.

Douma is the last town held by rebels in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

Other rebel groups agreed to relocate to the north after a Russia-backed government offensive in February and March that killed over 1,500 people and caused catastrophic destruction.

Jaish al-Islam appears to have reached a deal with Russia to relocate to parts of northern Syria controlled by Turkey-allied opposition forces. Six-hundred-and-fifty fighters and civilians escorted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent left Douma Wednesday and headed north toward the town of Jarablus, according to SANA and opposition activists. Jaish al-Islam has never publicly confirmed the agreement and is said to be divided on whether to leave Douma, with hard-liners wanting to stay and fight.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the suspension was triggered by measures taken by Turkish troops in areas where opposition fighters are arriving. It said there are about 14,000 Jaish al-Islam fighters in Douma and the nearby eastern Qalamoun region.

A reporter for Syrian state TV speaking from an area on the edge of Douma Thursday said no Jaish al-Islam fighters had left so far, adding that those who departed over the past three days belonged to other groups.

The Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam, which has deep roots in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, has held firm in recent weeks as virtually all the other insurgents of Eastern Ghouta have reached deals to relocate to the rebel-held north. The rebels say such agreements amount to forced displacement, but have reluctantly given in after years of siege and weeks of heavy bombardment.

The observatory said Jaish al-Islam is trying to negotiate a new deal with the Russians and the Syrian government that could allow some fighters to hand over their weapons and remain in the town.

It also said that “since Sunday, reinforcements of regime forces and loyalist fighters – especially Palestinians – have been sent to the south of Damascus in preparation for a military offensive to end the Daesh presence in the capital.”

Daesh militants have controlled large parts of the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk and sections of the neighbouring districts of Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamon in the capital’s south since 2015.Last month, they overran the adjacent Qadam neighborhood, taking advantage of Syrian troops being busy with an operation against rebels in Eastern Ghouta on the capital’s northeastern flank.

“Palestinian fighters will be at the forefront of any military advance on the Yarmouk camp,” observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan also reported a potential military offensive on Daesh in the area, but gave no timeline or further details.

Expelling the militants would give the regime full control of the capital for the first time since 2012.

Once a thriving district home to some 160,000 Syrians and Palestinians, Yarmouk has been devastated since late 2012.

Clashes broke out that year between regime forces and rebels in the camp, causing thousands of people to flee.

Since 2015, Daesh has controlled the large majority of Yarmouk, while Syria’s then-Al-Qaeda affiliate controlled other parts.

In the past two weeks, former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham fighters have left Yarmouk under a negotiated withdrawal, but hundreds of Daesh militants remain, the observatory said.

Separately, the U.S. military policy toward fighting Daesh in Syria remains the same following discussions with President Donald Trump this week and the military has not been given a timeline for withdrawing troops, the Pentagon said later Thursday.

Trump agreed in a National Security Council meeting this week to keep U.S. troops in Syria a little longer to defeat Daesh but wants them out relatively soon, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Trump has signaled his desire to get U.S. forces out of Syria and officials said he has privately been pressing for an early withdrawal in talks with his national security aides.

“We’ve always thought that as we reach finality against ISIS in Syria we’re going to adjust the level of our presence there, so in that sense nothing actually has changed,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told a Pentagon briefing. McKenzie said Trump has not given the U.S. military any timeline.

“We think as we go forward one of the things that we haven’t been given is a timeline and that is actually very effective. ... [The] president has actually been very good in not giving us a specific timeline, so that is a tool that we will use to our effect as we move forward,” McKenzie said.

The United States is conducting airstrikes in Syria and has deployed about 2,000 troops on the ground, including special operations forces whose advice has helped Kurdish militias and other U.S.-backed fighters capture territory from Daesh.

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