In private, Trump has mused about Syria pullout for weeks

Saul Bowman
April 5, 2018

They headed to Jarablus in northern Syria, the Syrian Arab News Agency said.

The Syrian government and the Russian military backing it have demanded that the Army of Islam rebel group leave the area for northern Syria, following a devastating five-week government offensive in eastern Ghouta.

The agreement brokered by government ally Russian Federation would see fighters with the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction leave Ghouta's main town of Douma for opposition territory in northern Syria, state media and a monitoring group said.

Syrian state TV said eight buses carrying 448 people - fighters and their families - had left Douma so far on Monday, en route for the north.

Buses transporting the rebels left Douma and reached the crossing of Wafideen area northeast of Damascus, before they set off late in the evening to Jarablus in the northern countryside of Aleppo province near the Turkish border.

Journalists on the ground said both the regime and the rebels had restricted access to the evacuation operation from Douma.

Mr Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Extremism and Counter-terrorism Programme at the Middle East Institute, noted that a sudden withdrawal of United States forces would immediately bolster Iran, Russia and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

If confirmed, the departure of Jaish al-Islam from Douma would mark the end of the war for eastern Ghouta, wiping out an opposition stronghold near Damascus and underliningBashar al-Assad's unassailable position in the war.

Jaish al-Islam has around 10,000 fighters in its ranks, the Observatory says.


Eastern Ghouta was controlled by four major rebel groups, namely the Islam Army, Failaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Levant Liberation Committee, known as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

Late on Sunday, Russian news agency Interfax quoted General Yuri Yevtushenko as saying a "preliminary deal" had been reached to evacuate Jaish al Islam fighters.

Talks with Jaish al-Islam for the evacuation of Douma have dragged on for several days, with residents growing nervous.

However, Jaish al-Islam has yet to confirm the report and only said on Saturday that it had agreed to evacuate the wounded to Idlib in northwestern Syria.

In video footage published by the group online on Sunday, leader Essam al-Buidani told men in a mosque: "We will stay in this town and will not leave". "I will gather my children and we will stay together".

The government has threatened to storm the city if rebels did not agree to surrender the last patch in the enclave in exchange for safe passage to Idlib.

Backed by Russia, Assad's forces have scored a series of victories over rebel forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment and ground offensives that have drawn widespread worldwide condemnation.

When President Donald Trump vowed USA forces would shortly quit Syria, observers were left wondering if he was signalling an epic policy shift - or whether it was more a case of wishful thinking. More than 11 million people - about half the country's prewar population - have been displaced from their homes, including over 5 million who are living as refugees outside Syria, according to the United Nations.

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