First rebels leave Syria enclave under Russian-brokered deal

Red Crescent vehicles wait at the entrance of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 22, 2018, after a deal was struck with the rebels in the area to evacuate the town. The deal to evacuate mainly members of the hard-line Islamist rebel group Ahrar Al-Sham and their families was announced on March 21 and brokered by regime ally Russia. (AFP/Louai Beshara)
Updated 23 March 2018
0

First rebels leave Syria enclave under Russian-brokered deal

HARASTA, Syria: A Syrian rebel group in Eastern Ghouta announced a cease-fire from midnight Friday, a spokesman said, after fighters and their families left under a Russian-brokered evacuation deal that is the first for the shrinking opposition enclave outside Damascus.
The evacuees were bussed out in the direction of the northwestern province of Idlib, after hours of waiting in a buffer zone for a green light to enter regime-held territory.
In Idlib — the last province in Syria beyond government control — an air raid on a market killed 28 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The evacuation agreement, announced on Wednesday and brokered by regime ally Russia, could empty one of three rebel-held pockets in Ghouta as government troops seek to secure the nearby capital.
It could also further isolate the rebel groups that control the remaining two pockets of Ghouta and piles pressure on them to accept similar deals.
It came as a spokesman for the Faylaq Al-Rahman rebel group in the southern rebel pocket of Ghouta announced that “agreement has been reached for a cease-fire, through the auspices of the United Nations.”
The truce will permit “a final round of negotiations” between rebels and Russia, he added.
The announcement was made after air raids targeted the part of southern Ghouta under the control of the Faylaq Al-Rahman, leaving at least 38 people dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
After hours of waiting in a buffer zone, more than 1,580 people including 413 fighters left the Ghouta town of Harasta on 30 buses, state news agency SANA said, crossing over into regime-held territory.
State television announced the “departure of buses carrying fighters from Harasta to Idlib.”
An AFP correspondent saw the buses exit the battered rebel bastion, in the first such deal since a blistering regime assault on the enclave started on February 18.
Before leaving, fighters performed the evening prayer by the buses, he said.
Women and children walked nearby or sat by the side of the road.
Munzer Fares, a spokesman for the Ahrar Al-Sham rebel group controlling Harasta, said the evacuations could last several days.
The regime’s offensive on Ghouta has killed more than 1,500 civilians since February 18, the Observatory says, and sliced the shrinking enclave into three isolated pockets.
Central Damascus lies within mortar range of Ghouta, and the evacuation deal came after the deadliest rebel rocket attack on the capital in months killed 44 civilians on Tuesday.
Rebel fire on Thursday killed four people in Damascus, state television said.
The rebels and their families will be transported to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is held by a myriad of jihadist, Islamist and secular groups, many with links to Turkey.
In Idlib, air strikes killed 28 civilians — including 11 children — in Harem, an area controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a group led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Observatory said.
It came a day after an air raid on a different part of Idlib, the town of Kafr Batikh, killed 20 civilians — including 16 children — near a school.
The evacuation from Harasta will further isolate the rebel groups that control the remaining two pockets of Ghouta and pile pressure on them to accept similar deals.
Syrian Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told AFP that Ahrar Al-Sham had negotiated with the Russian Center for Reconciliation and that Damascus was not directly involved.
Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Center, said fighters in Harasta “were not able to impose a single one of their conditions.”
Opposition figures in Ghouta said talks were under way for a deal to evacuate rebels from the enclave’s main town, Douma.
Douma is controlled by the Jaish Al-Islam group, while a pocket of territory closer to the capital is held by Faylaq Al-Rahman with a small jihadist presence.
Air strikes on Zamalka killed 16 civilians on Thursday, the Observatory said.
An AFP reporter in Douma said hundreds of civilians were fleeing the town.
Similar evacuation deals have seen the government retake a string of former rebel bastions.
A May 2014 deal saw rebels pull out of third city Homs, once labelled the “capital of the revolution” that sparked Syria’s seven-year civil war.
In December 2016, the army retook the whole of second city Aleppo as rebels withdrew in one of their worst defeats of the war.
Those agreements also followed devastating bombardments that took a heavy toll on trapped civilians.
The assault on Ghouta has sparked a mass exodus of civilians from the enclave.
Some 50,000 people have reached shelters in government-controlled territory in the past week, the United Nations says.
On Wednesday, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Syria said those displaced were living in “tragic” conditions.
“People may have escaped fighting, fear and insecurity but they find themselves in a place without anywhere to wash themselves,” Ali Al-Zaatari said.


Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

Updated 15 December 2018
0

Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

  • There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country
ANKARA: While Moscow and Damascus urge the repatriation of Syrian refugees based on improving living conditions in the country, their call seems largely unheard by Syrians who think that the conditions on the ground are not yet encouraging enough for them to return.
Just in November 2018, some 10,232 Syrians have been caught by Turkish border troops crossing illegally into Turkey.
Experts underline that the repatriation process should be carried out voluntarily and with consideration for the socio-economic, political and security risks during the restoration process of the country. Otherwise, it may be premature.
The Syrian regime recently set up a coordination committee for the repatriation of displaced Syrian nationals to their original cities and towns.
Moscow also prepared a plan in July for coordinating the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in their homelands. The plan was based on the establishment of working groups with Amman and Beirut, with the presence of US and Russian officials.
The reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan in mid-October has also encouraged Assad government to issue calls for the Syrian nationals to return home.
Following the seven-year-long civil war, about 5.6 million Syrians are believed to have fled abroad to neighboring countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while some preferred to set off for a new life in Europe.
About 114,000 of them have been repatriated this year, according to data announced by Moscow.
The risk of facing maltreatment when they return to government-held areas also caused concern among Syrian refugee communities.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has announced that since October more than 700 returnees, mostly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, have been arrested and 230 of them were detained in government-controlled parts of Syria.
Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian-origin researcher on refugee integration at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, thinks that conditions for repatriation aren’t ripe yet.
“Many Syrians link the return to political change, but status quo has the upper hand. Plus the risk of being drafted to military, the non-functioning economy, and the lack of safety despite all the recent developments create unappealing conditions for return,” he told Arab News.
To encourage the return of Syrians, Assad regime has recently offered an amnesty for army deserters who will allegedly not be punished but will still have to serve the mandatory two years of military service.
However, those who joined opposition groups against regime forces are exempted from the amnesty, sparking concerns that it aims to attract only Assad supporters home.
According to Kadkoy, who has been living in Ankara for four years, the tempo of life is faster and harder in Turkey, but better compared to where Syrians come from and Syrians are getting used to this complex environment.
“This means they’re settling down after seven years and building their future: Kids in schools and universities, parents filling different layers of the labor market, and flourishing businesses,” he noted.
Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey established 151 new companies in October mainly in the wholesale sector. Concentrating their activities in Istanbul, they invested about 34 million Turkish liras (about $6.3 million) and opened employment opportunities to many.
On the other hand, thousands of Turkish families reportedly began filing requests to adopt orphan Syrian children in Turkey. There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country.
According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, there are three major factors preventing many Syrian refugees from feeling that it is safe for them to return home.
“First, the Assad government is continuing to seize and demolish homes in areas that had been held by anti-government forces, meaning that for many Syrian refugees there is no home to return to,” Roth told Arab News.
Second, Syrian prisons remain full of people vulnerable to torture and execution.
“Few will want to return home if they face a serious risk of detention,” Roth noted, adding that the Assad government has not accounted for the thousands who have “disappeared” in its prisons, many of whom have been killed or died due to horrible treatment.
Roth also said that there has been no accountability whatsoever for the Assad government’s deliberate strategy of bombing or besieging and starving civilian areas.
“Few will have any confidence that such atrocities will not resume if there has been no justice for the senior officials who directed them,” he added.
Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, thinks that although Syria and Russia are trying to send assurances to Syrian refugees to encourage them to return, in fact the policy of the Syrian regime is contrary to official statements.
“The country is still in the grip of security, arrests are present, and reserve recruitment exists. One of my friends is a refugee in Jordan. He visited Syria two weeks ago, and when he decided to return he was surprised that he was wanted for military service,” he told Arab News.