A small group of Syrian civilians on Monday left the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta just outside of Damascus, using a corridor established by the Syrian army amid the military’s gains that have effectively divided the area into three parts.
State-run Syrian TV broadcast footage showing a group of men, women and children it says left the town of Madyara after it was captured by Syrian troops on Sunday. The TV showed several women carrying babies and welcoming the Syrian army, and claiming the rebels were preventing civilians from leaving eastern Ghouta.
Recapturing the enclave would mark one of the most significant victories for President Bashar Assad in the seven-year civil war. It would also be the worst setback for rebels since the opposition was ousted from the eastern half of the city of Aleppo in late 2016 following a similar siege and bombing campaign.
Eastern Ghouta is larger and more populated, with some 400,000 people believed to be living there, trapped under a relentless air and ground bombardment and a crippling years-long siege. More than 1,000 people have been killed since the large-scale government offensive began on Feb. 18.
In rapid advances over the weekend, Syrian government forces split eastern Ghouta in two — a northern and southern part — then cut off key towns of Douma and Harasta from the rest of the enclave, further squeezing the residents inside them. Douma is eastern Ghouta’s largest settlement. Local council member Iyad Abdelaziz said residents and local authorities are now considering evacuating the town.
The largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, the Army of Islam, said Monday it agreed with Russian forces to evacuate the wounded from the enclave. Its statement said the deal with the Russians was reached through the United Nations.
The Army of Islam said the wounded will be evacuated in stages but made no mention if they are rebel fighters or civilians. The group also did not say when the evacuations would begin or where the wounded would be taken.