Syrian government forces have retaken the town of Douma, thus gaining full control of the former rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, according to a Russian military official.
Syrian troops pushed the last rebel fighters out of Douma on Thursday, Major-General Yury Yevtushenko, head of Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, told local news media.
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“Today, a landmark event in the history of the Syrian Arab Republic took place,” he was quoted as saying by the Russian agency Sputnik.
“The state flag flown over a building … in the city of Douma marked the regained control over this settlement, and consequently over entire Eastern Ghouta.”
There has been no official statement from the Syrian government so far.
Russian military police have been deployed on the ground to take over Douma’s security, Russian news agency RIA reported.
The developments come after Jaish al-Islam, the last remaining rebel group in Eastern Ghouta, reached a deal with Russia on Sunday under which its fighters would abandon Douma and head for an opposition-held area in northern Syria.
The agreement includes a ceasefire and the evacuation of fighters and civilians from the area.
Under the deal, only the Russian military police, and not the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are allowed to enter Douma after the evacuation.
Crossing points will be opened to commercial movement as soon as Russian military police enter the city.
The deal also ensures the release of all pro-government prisoners held in Douma.
The agreement came a day after a suspected chemical attack killed at least 80 people and affected hundreds of other Douma residents.
Eastern Ghouta has been under government siege since 2013 as part of its so-called “siege and starvation” tactics.
Assad’s next steps
Al Jazeera’s Zena Khodr, reporting from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, said: “This is no doubt a victory for the pro-government alliance because Eastern Ghouta has long been a thorn in the side of the government, right at the doorstep of the capital, Damascus, the government’s seat of power.”
Pro-regime media outlets are reporting that government forces are already planning their next steps, she said.
“There are territories and districts that are under the control of ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group], and what we understand is that the pro-government alliance is going to focus on those districts to clear them from ISIL fighters in order to consolidate control of the capital and to put the government in a very comfortable position with help from its allies, Russia and Iran.”
Douma and Eastern Ghouta have come under heavy ground and aerial bombardment by government forces in recent weeks.
The suspected chemical attack in Douma was the largest of its kind in Syria since last April, drawing international outrage and prompting a war of words between the US and Russia.
Syria’s government and Russia have denied the attack took place, but rescuers and medics have reported the deaths of dozens of people, including many women and children.
Three rival draft resolutions to investigate suspected chemical-weapons attacks in Syria failed to pass in the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
However, the OPCW will go head with its fact-finding mission to Douma to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challand, reporting from Moscow, said the government takeover of Douma “will have an impact on the OPCW fact-finding mission”.
“The region is now directly under the control of Russian military police and the Syrian government,” he said.
“That might have an impact on what they find on the ground when they look for evidence of what happened last weekend.”