Syrian Government Declares Full Victory Over Eastern GhoutaBy
Army of Islam group, Russia reach deal to evacuate fighters
More than 1,644 civilians killed since offensive began Feb. 18
The Syrian government declared victory over Islamist-dominated fighters in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta after a relentless six-week siege, cementing President Bashar al-Assad’s rule by securing the capital and roads that link it to other parts of the country.
Some fighting continued around Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta and stronghold of the Army of Islam group, according to the military’s victory statement late Saturday. The fighters and their families will be evacuated to Jarablus in Aleppo province, the official Sana news agency reported. The deal was reached between the Islamist group and Russian military forces backing Assad, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The fall of Eastern Ghouta caps weeks of airstrikes and bombardment by the Syrian government and its Russian allies against an area that had been the source of near-daily -- and sometimes deadly -- shelling on Damascus. At least 1,644 civilians, including 344 children, have been killed in the offensive that began on Feb. 18 and reduced some neighborhoods to rubble, according to SOHR, which monitors the seven-year Syrian war through activists on the ground.
Almost 200,000 people have been evacuated to government-controlled areas or to Idlib, home to mostly Islamist fighters in the northwest.
The Syrian army statement said the fall of Eastern Ghouta will restore security in Damascus and to roads connecting it to central, northern and eastern Syria.
The government now controls all of Syria’s major urban centers and about 60 percent of its territory, according to SOHR. Once Army of Islam leaves Ghouta, the opposition would be left with most of Idlib, Daraa in southwest Syria and parts of the northern suburbs of Homs.
Ghouta, which has been under siege for more than five years, captured world attention in August 2013 when an estimated 1,400 people died in a notorious chemical attack that changed the course of the war by making Russia a major player.
The U.S. blamed the attack on Syrian government forces but fell short of entering the war as it had vowed to do in the event of chemical warfare. Syria denied the allegations, blaming Islamic radicals, and agreed to surrender its chemical weapons under a Russian-brokered deal that critics say it did not fully honor.