Damascus jihadist evacuation plan on hold as rebel leader killed in strike

AFP and AP

DAMASCUS, Syria — A plan to evacuate thousands of jihadist fighters and civilians from three besieged districts of Syria’s capital was on hold Saturday, a day after an airstrike killed a rebel leader. Zahran Alloush, 44, was the commander of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) movement, the predominant opposition faction in the Eastern Ghouta rebel bastion east of Damascus. A senior member of Jaish al-Islam said three planes had targeted a “secret meeting” of commanders, and confirmed that Alloush was among those killed. His death, in an air raid claimed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was seen as dealing a heavy blow to the nearly five-year uprising and also complicating a fragile peace process. It also halted the planned evacuation of some 4,000 people, half of them jihadists, from three southern districts of Damascus. The plan, according to a government official, would see the evacuees transferred out of Qadam, Hajar al-Aswad and the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmuk on Saturday and into northern Syria.

They are expected to include members of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group and al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. But a security source close to the negotiations told AFP that the plan was now on hold because of Alloush’s death. “Jaish al-Islam was supposed to provide safe passage through areas east of Damascus for the buses heading to Raqa,” IS’s Syria bastion, the source said by phone. “About 1,200 people were supposed to leave today (Saturday), but the death of Zahran Alloush means we are back to square one,” he said.

He said buses that were standing by to transfer the evacuees left empty and “the plan was on hold until Jaish al-Islam reorganizes itself.” Another source close to the negotiations said there was a “delay” in implementing the deal but that it was “still in place.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the deal as “frozen.” “It was frozen, but not canceled, because of logistical issues linked essentially to the difficulty of providing safe passage,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.