The Syrian government has taken full control of a rebel-held stronghold near Damascus, Russian news agencies reported on Thursday.
Syrian forces raised the national flag over Douma, the last town in the suburban region of eastern Ghouta to be controlled by opposition fighters. Backed by Russian air power, the Syrian government had waged a brutal, months-long campaign to oust insurgent groups from the area.
The fighting killed 1,700 people and forced at least 130,000 more to flee eastern Ghouta, according to the United Nations.
If confirmed, the re-taking of Douma would cap a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally. The eastern Ghouta area had been a rebel bastion for much of Syria’s seven-year war, and its loss now gives the government total control of the capital region.
Russian military police were patrolling Douma on Thursday under a surrender agreement with rebel groups, reports Reuters, citing Russia’s RIA news agency. The last Islamist group in Douma, Jaish al-Islam, had agreed to withdraw on Sunday, and roughly 40,000 civilians have since left the area for opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria.
The evacuation comes as the U.S. and Western allies weigh a potential military response to a suspected chemical attack against civilians in Douma over the weekend. President Donald Trump has promised to retaliate against the Asssad regime, but military action has been delayed while allied leaders debate how and when to respond.
Trump said Thursday on Twitter that a possible strike against Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all.”
Any potential strike against Syria is complicated by the presence of Russian forces, which are tightly integrated with Syrian military assets. Moscow has warned that a U.S. military response to the chemical attack could put Russian troops in the line of fire and destabilize the Syrian state, prolonging the conflict.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday the U.S. is working to determine if the Syrian government was responsible for the suspected attack.
“We’re still assessing the intelligence, ourselves and our allies. We’re still working on this,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
Syria has denied it carried out the chemical attack, and Russia has suggested it was fabricated by rebel groups seeking to provoke a U.S. response against the Assad regime.
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