Evacuation of eastern Ghouta stalls as rival factions squabble
Russian-brokered deal allows Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families to leave
A convoy transporting Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families from the town of Douma to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Outside the evacuation corridor, soldiers lounged in the sun, played cards on a small table set beneath an awning and dozed on plastic chairs. Television teams waited impatiently for buses which had crossed to the jihadi side of the line but did not return with departing fighters and their families.
In late afternoon five buses appeared, a sop to Jaish al-Islam’s Istanbul-based political head Mohamed Alloush, who has ordered his men to leave. They were stalling.
The men have a choice under a Russian-brokered evacuation deal: they can leave with their sidearms and families or surrender their weapons and apply for government amnesty.
Thousands of rebel fighters and family members have left eastern Ghouta under the deal, which followed weeks of bombardment of the enclave – adjacent to Damascus – by Russian-backed government forces.
Three hardline factions reject the agreement. One argues it should make a last stand, a second insists fighters should take heavy weapons with them and a third holds it should keep its light weapons and form an autonomous administration for eastern Ghouta, although 95 per cent of it is under government control. Moscow and Damascus are ready for a fight and are not prepared to concede these demands.
Jaish al-Islam [Army of Islam] is a particularly problematic group. Saudi Arabia, its sponsor, appears to have abandoned its fighters in Douma, where the group was formed in 2011. As the largest armed group in eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam dominated but often clashed with the three other jihadi groups in the enclave. They accepted the Russian deal and their fighters have surrendered or departed for the northwestern province of Idlib where each has a presence.
Fighters from a local group, Jihad al-Islam, were rejected by Idlib and insurgent held pockets in the south. Turkey eventually offered to admit the group’s fighters to the Turkish-occupied city of Jarablus in the north near the Turkish-Syrian border. However, fighters who left in a convoy on Monday remain on buses outside Jarablus.
‘Nothing for waiting’
Meanwhile, in eastern Ghouta, long lines of buses remain parked on the roadside, as they have been for two to four days. Bored drivers sleep, sit on carpets on the ground beside their vehicles, and wait. For the men, grubby and unshaven, the evacuation of the enclave is a job and a national duty. An evacuation marks the end of a siege or battle and brings the war nearer its end.
Crowding round, they offer to talk about evacuations. No names, no photos. “We have been involved in Homs, Aleppo, now Ghouta,” states a young Kurd from Turkish-conquered Afrin in in the northwest. “We are paid 25,000 Syrian pounds [€40] for the trip. Nothing for waiting,” says a middle-aged, bearded man from insurgent-controlled Idlib.
The men are courageous. Unarmed, they drive armed fighters for as long as 15 hours. “The fighters cover their faces and do not speak but sometimes fight among themselves. They respect us because we have their lives in our hands,” he says.
They drive slowly, accompanied by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and breakdown vehicles. The way is dangerous. People they pass on the roadside or in cars on the highway throw rocks or even fire shots at the buses.
“The fighters know their fate. They will fight. We feel sorry for the women and children,” says the bearded man, “they don’t know their future. They are in the hands of God.”