Syrian regime allows 16 people out of besieged area in exchange for prisoners
A deal to evacuate 29 Syrian civilians in need of critical medical care from the besieged eastern suburbs of Damascus was more than half-completed on Thursday as humanitarian groups pointed out that hundreds more are in need of urgent care.
The Syrian government has allowed the evacuations to take place in exchange for the release of prisoners held by Jaish Al Islam (Army of Islam), one of the rebel groups seeking the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Red Cross said 16 people had been evacuated in exchange for about the same number of prisoners. At the Syrian Red Crescent headquarters in Douma, one of those waiting for the ambulance was Abdel Rahman, a seven-month-old baby with respiratory assistance.
Most of those awaiting evacuation are suffering from cancer, chronic diseases and heart diseases.From the list of 500 urgent cases announced in November at least 16 have already died for lack of medical assistance.
Around 400,000 people live in the Eastern Ghouta area on the edge of the Syrian capital. The enclave is controlled by rebels, the dominant faction among them being Jaish al-Islam, and has been under siege by the government for four years.
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Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and currently a UN special envoy for humanitarian access in Syria, was critical of the deal that allowed the patients to leave.
The agreement between the rebels and the government was reached with support from Turkey, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and led to the release of 26 men held by Jaish al-Islam rebels.
It is "not a good agreement if they exchange sick children for detainees. That means children become bargaining chips in some tug of war," Mr Egeland said.
There was no pause in the fighting while the evacuations took place, as government forces continued to battle rebels in the neighbourhood of Jobar, one of a number of suburbs collectively known as Eastern Ghouta.
“This is a very small number of the people who need to be transferred outside of Ghouta,” said Mohamed Katoub, a spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which provides support for hospitals in rebel-held parts of the country. He said most of the people who need urgent care are in such dire circumstances because of the Syrian government's refusal to allow even basic medical supplies into the area.
“Evacuating people is not a solution, but it’s a very good step,” Mr Katoub said. “Many people can be treated in Ghouta, but there has to be access to medical supplies.” He also criticised the rebels' use of civilian detainees as bargaining chips.“People who need to be released from detention facilities should be released, not just in exchange,” he said.
The siege has worsened in the last six months as government forces have cut routes that previously allowed some goods into the area. This has caused food prices to skyrocket, resulting in dozens of reports of deaths related to malnutrition. Shipments of food and medical aid occasionally enter the area but fall far short of what is needed.
Mr Katoub said the evacuation deal came too late for some of those on the list. The United Nations has called for nearly 500 people to be immediately evacuated and SAMs has a list of more than 600. Of the original 29 cases considered the most urgent, two died in the last month, Mr Katoub said.
In the last year, both the forces backed by the US and the Syrian government’s forces, with Russian air support, have carried out simultaneous operations in Iraq and Syria that have dislodged ISIL from most of the territory it once controlled. The US-led coalition said earlier this week that only an estimated 1,000 ISIL fighters remained in Iraq and Syria.
However, a spokesman said on Wednesday coalition forces would not pursue ISIL fighters into areas held by the Syrian government and its allies.
Though there have been incidents of US aircraft striking Syrian government forces and vice versa, the two sides have largely held to a line of deconfliction via daily communications between Russian and US military personnel. That line has largely followed the path of the Euphrates River, with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) largely operating east of the river while the Syrian government’s forces fought largely on the west.
*Additional reporting by Reuters