Syrian Rebels Agree to Evacuate Qaeda-Linked Fighters From Eastern Ghouta
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian government forces were close to splitting the besieged rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta in two on Saturday, as rebel leaders said they had agreed with the government to evacuate fighters from a Qaeda-linked group.
Thirteen fighters from the Qaeda-linked group, known as the Levant Liberation Committee, were bused out Friday night, bound for the northern rebel-held province of Idlib, according to rebel statements and video footage. Those fighters were detained last year by the Army of Islam, the group that controls Douma, the main city in Eastern Ghouta.
The evacuation was the first such concession by the rebels in Eastern Ghouta, a collection of towns and agricultural areas adjacent to the capital, Damascus. The agreement, struck with a delegation that accompanied a United Nations aid convoy into Douma on Friday, came as the rebels were under intense pressure.
Government forces continued to advance in a ground campaign aiming to split Douma and the town of Harasta from the rest of the enclave. Residents in at least one town have begun calling for rebels to leave, hoping that their departure would end government airstrikes and artillery attacks, which medical workers said had killed 50 people in the past 24 hours.
Of the thousands of rebel fighters in Eastern Ghouta, a few hundred at most are from the Qaeda-linked group, which is known by the Arabic initials H.T.S., according to the spokesman for the Army of Islam, Mohammad Alloush. But it was not clear how many of those were in the custody of the larger rebel groups, and whether those at large would agree to leave.
The presence of H.T.S. has been a chief justification cited by the Syrian government and its most powerful ally, Russia, for the scorched-earth bombing campaign they are carrying out in Eastern Ghouta. The campaign has killed more than 1,000 people, most of them civilians, in less than a month, according to medical staff and monitoring groups in the area.
The cease-fire endorsed more than a week ago by the United Nations Security Council — but not yet implemented — does not cover H.T.S., a coalition of rebel forces led by the Nusra Front, a group that was formed as Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and is listed internationally as a terrorist group.
Russia and the Syrian government say the other rebel groups have worked with H.T.S. and so are fair game for attacks. During rebel infighting in the enclave, analysts and some residents say, the Army of Islam’s main rival, Faylaq Al Rahman, has sometimes formed opportunistic alliances with H.T.S.
Mohammad Adel, an antigovernment activist in Douma, said H.T.S. had endangered people in Eastern Ghouta, declared Muslims who disagree with the group nonbelievers, and soured residents on the other rebel groups.
“it was behind many assassinations, and the killings which happened between the groups in Ghouta,” Mr. Adel said in an online interview. “So Ghouta will gain by finishing with these people.”
Yet the pro-government alliance is not likely to stop at the evacuation of H.T.S. fighters. It often refers to all rebels as terrorists and is looking instead to take back the entire area.
To keep bombing, Mr. Adel said, “the Russians don’t need any excuse.”