BEIRUT (Dispatches) – The remaining terrorists started to withdraw from the last terrorist-held enclave in central Syria on Wednesday, state television reported, sealing the government’s control over the area and opening a major stretch of the country’s most important highway.
It further cements President Bashar al-Assad’s dominant position over the most populated parts of Syria after years of fighting, but means any new military campaign might risk direct conflict with foreign powers.
The withdrawal may also be the last in a series of agreed evacuations used by the government to defeat besieged insurgents by forcing them to surrender territory in return for safe passage to opposition areas in the north.
Often brokered by Assad’s Russian allies, such agreements have in recent years become a defining characteristic of Syria’s seven-year war. They have displaced over 100,000 people – terrorists and civilians.
The Syrian government has said nobody is forced to leave and those who stay must accept state rule.
The last besieged terrorist area, being fully evacuated on Wednesday, is the large enclave located between the cities of Hama and Homs around the towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla.
Assad focused on the remaining besieged terrorist pockets last month after taking back Eastern Ghouta, the biggest terrorist enclave near Damascus, in a weeks-long offensive.
Eastern Ghouta, a besieged area on the outskirts of Damascus with some 400,000 people, has witnessed deadly violence over the past few weeks, as terrorist outfits have launched mortar attacks on the Syrian capital in the face of an imminent humiliating defeat, killing around 20 civilians in two weeks.
The Syrian army is making steady advances in the enclave, but it is facing a hostile West, which is threatening airstrikes to stop the push. President Bashar al-Assad vowed last week that Syrian forces would continue the campaign until the whole area is retaken.
Syria has been gripped by foreign-backed militancy since March 2011. The Syrian government says the Israeli regime and its Western and regional allies are aiding terrorist groups that are wreaking havoc in the country.
Syrian security forces raise the government flag in the main square of the town of Rastan in the central Homs province on May 16, 2018 after they took control of it as militants and their relatives were evacuated.