Buses carrying more than 300 Syrians left the besieged Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya on Friday, in the first stage of a deal that will enable the Assad regime to retake control of the rebel-held area, amid fears of forced demographic changes around Damascus.
In the first stage of the deal, 303 people, including 62 gunmen who agreed to lay down their arms and accept a presidential amnesty deal, were bussed out of the area and taken to the nearby regime-controlled town of Horjelah, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
SANA showed footage of families heaving luggage through the streets and buses arriving to take them from Mouadamiya. They will be transported to a temporary housing area in Harjaleh near Damascus, it reported.
“The Darayya file is now closed after the evacuation of all the civilians, armed men and their families under the agreement” reached earlier between the government and the militants, SANA said.
The Mouadamiya agreement comes just a week after a deal was struck in neighboring Daraya that brought about the full evacuation of the suburb, a move heavily criticized by the international community as forced displacement.
Those who left Mouadamiya on Friday were originally from Daraya, having fled heavy bombardments earlier in the year.
“The heroic acts of the Syrian army in Daraya led to the achievement in Mouadamiya,” Alaa Ibrahim, the governor of rural Damascus, told Syrian state TV.
In the second stage of the Mouadamiya deal, rebels who refuse to hand over their weapons will be forced to leave the suburb, probably to rebel-controlled Idlib province.
It was not clear when the second stage would be implemented or when Assad regime’s security forces would take over control of the suburb.
The deal was reportedly reached on Tuesday in a meeting between Mouadamiya’s local council, Assad regime’s officials and Russian military officers at the army’s 4th Armoured Division headquarters in the mountains on the southern outskirts of Damascus.
Demographic change, Surrender or we burn Mouadamiya
“It wasn’t a negotiation or a conversation, it was a threat,” Mouadamiya-based media activist Dani Qappani told Al Jazeera. “They basically told us: ‘Either surrender or we burn Mouadamiya.'”
“They know the situation here. There’s little to no food or medical supplies,” said Qappani, adding that residents of the besieged suburb could not hold out much longer.
“Once they finish evacuating people of Daraya who are living here, they’ll try to begin the process of surrendering arms and dismantle the revolutionary establishments inside the city.”
Mouadamiya was hit with toxic sarin gas in 2013, according to the UN, and has suffered a three-year siege by Assad regime, leaving its 28,000 residents with little food or medical supplies.
Rebel fighters in Mouadamiya have negotiated several local truces with the Assad regime since 2012, and the suburb has been spared much of the destruction and bombing that occurred in Daraya, just a mile away.
“At the core of the matter is the clearing of the area,” said Qappani.
“A large portion of people don’t want to leave their homes because they don’t want the regime to forcefully change the demography of the area.”
Abo Kanan al-Dimashqi, a member of the Mouadamiya local council, said he believes the Assad regime “clearly wants to do what it did in Daraya”.
“They want to clear the area and put a different sect here. That’s their plan – a demographic change.”
UN has “concerns”
The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura voiced concern that the Daraya agreement was part of a larger strategy by the Assad regime to empty rebel enclaves and that it may soon be extended to other areas.
There are “indications that after Daraya we may have other Darayas,” he told reporters in Geneva on Thursday.
“There is clearly a strategy at the moment to move from Daraya” to other besieged areas “in a similar pattern”.
Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian chief, said the UN humanitarian task force for Syria had “failed the people of Daraya”.
The UN has underlined that it was not consulted on the Daraya deal and described the evacuation of the suburb as a forced displacement.
After last week’s deal in neighboring Daraya, Assad regime’s troops took control of a completely empty suburb – once home to a quarter of a million people.
“The regime is now gaining some momentum on the outskirts of the capital with this new tactic, forcing the population into leaving their areas through years of siege,” a journalist said.
“Now after Daraya, today is Mouadamiya. There are concerns that the regime is going to further replicate the resettling of the Sunni community in different parts of the capital. There are fears that Douma, a major opposition stronghold near the capital, could be the next.”
— الاعلام الحربي مركزي (@C_Military1) September 2, 2016