Syria and its ally Russia have threatened to resume bombing the final opposition holdout of Douma in Eastern Ghouta unless rebels there agree to evacuate, sources told reporters on Tuesday. Jaish al-Islam, the powerful Islamist faction that holds Douma, had hoped that talks with Moscow would result in their staying in the town, instead of being bused out like other rebels. But negotiations have stalled and Russia has demanded a full withdrawal from Douma, two opposition sources close to the negotiations said.
“At the end of their meeting Monday, the Russians gave Jaish al-Islam two choices: surrender or face an attack,” one of them said. Russia gave the group a few days before a military assault on the town, they said. The source said Moscow urged them to follow the example of Faylaq al-Rahman, another Islamist faction that agreed last week to withdraw from its zone in Ghouta after immense military pressure.
Russia has brokered deals with Faylaq and another hardline group that has seen more than 17,000 rebels, their relatives, and other civilians bused out of Ghouta. Before they faltered, talks over Douma’s fate had envisioned Jaish al-Islam laying down its heavy weapons in exchange for government-provided water and electricity returning to the town. Douma had been relatively calm as negotiations were underway, without the heavy bombing raining on other towns.
But Moscow was no longer willing to accept a special exception for Douma, the second opposition source said. “The Russians don’t want an agreement for Douma that’s different from other parts of Ghouta, but Jaish al-Islam wants to stay and doesn’t want any residents to leave,” the source said. “They gave them an ultimatum,” the source said, adding that the group had “until Wednesday or Thursday” to respond.
Al-Watan, a newspaper close to the Syrian government, reported Tuesday that military forces were already amassing around Douma. “All forces involved in Eastern Ghouta are heading towards Douma ahead of a massive military operation if the terrorists of Jaish al-Islam do not agree to hand over the city and leave,” the daily said, citing a military source. Syrian troops have already captured more than 90 percent of Eastern Ghouta through a blistering assault that has killed more than 1,600 civilians.