BEIRUT: Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel faction in control of territory in eastern Ghouta, said on Sunday it would not withdraw to other opposition-held parts of Syria as other rebel groups have done under deals negotiated with Syrian government ally Russia.
After a month-long ground and air offensive and deals under which rebel fighters agreed to be transported to northern Syria, pro-Syrian government forces have taken control of most of what had been the last major rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus. Only the town of Douma, the most populous part of eastern Ghouta, remains under rebel control. Jaish al-Islam is currently negotiating with Russia over the future of the area and the people in it.
“Today the negotiations taking place … are to stay in Ghouta and not to leave it,” Jaish al-Islam’s Military Spokesman Hamza Birqdar told Istanbul-based Syrian radio station Radio Al-Kul via Skype from eastern Ghouta.
Birqdar accused the Syrian government of trying to change the demographic balance of the eastern Ghouta by forcing out locals and replacing them with its allies. He said in the negotiations with Russia Jaish al-Islam is asking for guarantees that what remains of the local population will not be forced out. Both Ahrar al-Sham and Failq al-Rahman, two other rebel groups formerly in charge of pockets of the eastern Ghouta, have accepted deals under which they withdraw to opposition-held Idlib in northwest Syria.
Moscow and Damascus say the Ghouta campaign is necessary to halt deadly rebel shelling of the capital.
In a related development, a Russian General Staff official was quoted by Russia’s RIA news agency as saying that fighters associated with the Jaish al-Islam group had expressed readiness to lay down their arms and vacate the town of Douma. He explained that negotiations with Russian officers were currently in progress and the issue would be resolved in the near future.