ISIS Militants Leave Damascus Under Evacuation Deal As Assad Takes Full Control Of Capital

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

Islamic State fighters began evacuating their last remaining positions in southern Damascus on Sunday under an agreement with the Syrian government, which was reached after months of furious fighting, according to a war monitor and local reports.

The brief ceasefire allows IS militants safe passage out of Damascus to camps in Syria’s eastern desert, where the group still clings on to some territory. Their departure marks the fall of all rebel and militant Islamic groups in Damascus and gives Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government full control of the capital region for the first time since the country’s civil war broke out in 2011.

“At dawn, six buses of IS fighters and their relatives left the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and adjacent district of Tadamun,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, according to Agence France-Presse.

Syrian government forces and their allies have been fighting to retake ISIS-held areas south of Damascus since defeating other rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, in April. The battle centered on the districts of Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun, as well as the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp — a once-thriving area home to 160,000 Palestinians and Syrians that has been completely destroyed.

Syrian state media on Sunday denied evacuations of ISIS fighters were underway in Hajar al-Aswad but did not say anything about departures from Yarmouk or Tadamun, AFP reported.

A “number of buses entered after midnight” to carry out the ISIS fighters and their families, The Syrian Observatory said earlier Sunday. The convoy then headed to the Syrian Badia, a sparsely populated region east of Damascus that extends to Syria’s desert frontier with Jordan and Iraq, the monitor said. (RELATED: US Air Power Aids Push To Eliminate ISIS In Syria)

Such negotiated evacuations, often arranged by Assad ally Russia, have been a regular feature of Syria’s civil war in recent years. As government forces, backed with Russian air power and Iranian militias, have retaken more territory, most rebels have been relocated to northwestern Syria and rebel-held areas north of Aleppo. More than 100,000 have been evacuated in the last two months alone, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to maintain a military presence in northeastern Syria focused on crushing the remnants of ISIS in the Euphrates River valley. President Donald Trump has signaled a desire to rapidly draw down U.S. commitments in Syria after ISIS is defeated, but he faces pressure from inside and outside his administration to keep American troops there as a way of maintaining leverage over Assad in post-war negotiations.

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