Syrian government set to take full control of East Qalamoun as rebels leave for the north

AMMAN: Hundreds of rebels and civilians prepared to depart an opposition enclave in the mountains northeast of Damascus on Monday, Syrian state media reported, in a final round of evacuations set to return the region to government control.

Government-operated buses entered the opposition-controlled town of a-Ruheibah in the East Qalamoun mountains on Monday afternoon, state news outlet SANA reported. Hundreds of rebel fighters and civilians were scheduled to evacuate the town for opposition-held territory in the country’s north.

Monday’s evacuation was the third and final round of departures under a reconciliation agreement that will see the entirety of the East Qalamoun region return to Syrian state control.

Evacuation buses in East Qalamoun on Sunday. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Opposition and government negotiators reached an agreement last Friday, SANA reported, with the first round of evacuations beginning on Saturday. Some 6,000 fighters and civilians are set to leave East Qalamoun over the course of the evacuation deal, according to SANA.

Civilians and fighters wishing to remain in their homes have the option to sign onto a reconciliation process and “settle their status” with the state. Those who refuse to reconcile with the government must depart East Qalamoun for Jarablus, a city in northern Aleppo province controlled by pro-Turkish rebel factions, opposition sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

A handful of FSA-affiliated and Islamist rebel factions have held the mountainous East Qalamoun region, located approximately 50 kilometers northeast of Damascus, since the early days of the Syrian conflict in 2012. However, the area of the rebel-controlled pocket area shrank considerably in recent years due to a series of Syrian government offensives.

The evacuation of East Qalamoun is part of efforts by the Syrian government to regain control of rebel-held territory around the Syrian capital in recent weeks. Military offensives and evacuation agreements have seen the state retake full control of both the nearby city of Dumayr and the East Ghouta suburbs.

More than 4,000 fighters and their families have left East Qalamoun since Saturday, Saeed Seif, a Jordan-based spokesman for local faction the Forces of Martyr Ahmad Abdo, told Syria Direct on Sunday.  

“Today is supposed to be the largest batch,” Seif said.

On Sunday, a convoy carrying roughly 1,500 opposition fighters and civilians arrived in regions of northern Aleppo province controlled by Turkish-backed rebel factions, pro-opposition media outlets reported at the time.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.