Three-year siege of Moadamiyeh ends after deal with Assad regime
MOADAMIYEH, Syria // More than 300 Syrians were taken by bus out of a rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Friday under a deal struck with the government that ends a punishing three-year siege, allows rebel fighters to leave and restores state control over the area.
The suburb of Moadamiyeh is the latest opposition pocket to relent after residents could no longer take the suffering under sieges by Syria’s military, with food supplies dwindling and key infrastructure like hospitals being destroyed. A nearby suburb, Daraya, surrendered and came under government control last week.
The accelerating pace of such surrenders points to the success of the military’s tactic of sieges, even as it has brought international criticism and complaints from the United Nations over the difficulty of getting humanitarian aid to besieged residents.
Security forces searched the luggage of dozens of men, women, and children before they boarded buses Friday, heading to shelters in a government-controlled neighbourhood nearby.
The siege of Moadamiyeh, which a UN report said was gassed with toxic sarin gas in 2013, left its estimated 28,000 residents with dwindling food and medical supplies.
About 340 people were evacuated in the first part of the deal’s implementation, including 62 gunmen who agreed to lay down their arms after taking advantage of a presidential amnesty, said the governor of Rural Damascus province, Alaa Munir Ibrahim.
Aside from the gunmen, the evacuees are all residents of the nearby suburb of Daraya who had been trapped in Moadamiyeh when the military launched an offensive on Daraya earlier this year.
Once their evacuation to government-controlled areas is complete, the rebel gunmen in Moadamiyeh who refuse to hand over their weapons will leave, most probably to rebel-held parts of northern Syria. The rest of the suburb’s population will remain.
It was not clear when government security forces would take over control of the suburb.
Moadamiyeh’s fall was a direct result of the collapse of resistance in Daraya, which had been under siege since 2012. Battered by the offensive launched this year, Daraya’s residents finally reached a deal with the government, and last week the entire remaining population of the suburb – about 4,000 people out of an original 200,000 – was removed, drawing criticism that it was a forced displacement.
The offensive also cut off other rebel-held areas such as Moadamiyah.
Mr Ibrahim said other “settlement” deals with rebel-held Damascus suburbs were currently under discussion, and urged other gunmen to lay down their arms.
Many of the towns and suburbs in the rural areas surrounding Damascus joined the opposition early in the civil war that began in 2011. But now rebel-held territory has been reduced to pockets, with the largest pocket east of the capital now a main target for sieges.
North of Damascus, rebels destroyed a helicopter with a TOW missile on Friday in Hama province, where they have launched a major assault in an area of strategic importance to president Bashar Al Assad.
Rebel group Jaish Al Azza, part of the Free Syrian Army alliance, said it had “destroyed a Russian helicopter” near the village of Rahbat Al Khattab, about 5 kilometres north-west of government-controlled Hama city.
Jaish Al Azza published a video online showing a helicopter bursting into flames and thick black smoke shortly after landing. It also showed rebels launching a TOW missile.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s conflict, said a helicopter, believed to be Russian, was hit by a rocket as it landed. It said the fate of the crew was not known.
Russian defence officials could not immediately be contacted for comment.
Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in September last year, to support Mr Al Assad after insurgents took large swathes of territory in the summer.
Since launching the offensive in the northern Hama countryside early this week, rebels have captured a number of towns and villages. The targeted area is populated by Christians and Alawites loyal to the government and is close to the mountain heartland of Mr Al Assad’s Alawite sect.
Also on Friday, Turkish forces fired tear gas and water cannon across the border at about 400 protesters in the Syrian town of Kobani, who were demonstrating against a barrier wall being built by Turkey. An official in the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration in Kobani said a 17-year old died and 80 people were wounded.
A Turkish official said the protesters threw stones at workers building the wall. Turkey has been building a wall along its border with Syria since 2014.
Farther west along the border, Syrian rebels supported by Turkish and coalition air strikes pushed deeper into areas held by ISIL in northern Syria, the Turkish army said.
The pro-Ankara rebels took the town of Jarabulus last week on the first day of an unprecedented Turkish offensive aimed both the extremist militants and a US-backed Kurdish militia that had been leading the fight against them.
In the past few days the rebels have been moving quickly to clear the extremists from the last stretch of the border under their control, backed by Turkish artillery and Turkish and coalition air strikes.
* Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Updated: September 2, 2016 04:00 AM