BEIRUT (AP) — The Russian military announced on Thursday that the Syrian government is now in full control of the last rebel-held town on the outskirts of Damascus that was the site of a suspected chemical attack over the weekend.
The development would mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar Assad as the United States and its allies consider punitive military attacks against Syria following the suspected chemical attack that killed 40 people.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that an attack on Syria could take place “very soon or not so soon at all.” Seeking to dispel criticism he had tweeted the time of an attack a day earlier, Trump argued he had never signaled the timing of retaliation.
In response to U.S. threats, Assad said Thursday a potential retaliation for the suspected chemical attack would be based on “lies” and would seek to undermine his forces’ recent advances near Damascus.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would not participate in possible military action in Syria, but supports sending a message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
Assad said Western countries were lashing out after they lost their “bet” on opposition forces in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Western threats endanger international peace and security, Assad said, and military action would only contribute to the “further destabilization” of the region. Assad spoke during a meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader.
There was no official announcement by Damascus yet that Douma has been liberated and also no indication that Syrian government forces had entered the town on Thursday. One government flag was raised in the town, a war monitoring group said.
Syrian TV stations showed civilians in vehicles carrying the Syrian flag crossing from Damascus into Douma.
Douma and the enclave of eastern Ghouta, just east of Damascus, was a significant rebel stronghold during Syria’s civil war, now in its eighth year. Its effective surrender to government forces comes after years of siege by Assad’s troops and a months-long, intense military offensive.
Meanwhile, Syrians were bracing for a possible U.S. attack in retaliation for Saturday’s alleged chemical assault in Douma.
Under an evacuation deal for eastern Ghouta that was mediated by Russia, Assad’s top ally, no Syrian troops are expected to enter Douma, only police. Another police force, incorporating former rebels, is also to be formed and deployed in Douma.
Evacuation of armed gunmen and civilians who refuse the deal is still underway. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through activists on the ground, there were still rebel fighters inside Douma on Thursday.
But the leaders of Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, the strongest rebel group in eastern Ghouta that controlled Douma, have all evacuated. It is not clear if any of the remaining rebel fighters will evacuate or hand in their weapons and take part in the new policing force.
The Russian Defense Ministry statement followed a chaotic day in Douma that saw rebels there open fire as opposition fighters were leaving with families under the deal. It appeared designed to quell the tension and ensure the deal, which has been fraught with bumps, remains on track.
The Russian ministry said the situation in Douma was “normalizing.” The Observatory said the Russian military is deploying to reassure thousands of remaining civilians in Douma.
Velayati, the Iranian aide, said he toured some parts of eastern Ghouta captured by the Syrian government Wednesday. He said it was “one of the most important victories” of the Syrian government in the war. He also said the government has come out stronger, “with its head high.”
Wednesday’s turmoil in Douma came during the evacuation of the latest batch of civilians and rebels after pro-government supporters attempted to raise government flags over buildings and chanted in support of Assad.
Some Russian journalists who had entered the town with a reconciliation delegation were wounded in the melee. The Observatory said more evacuations would take place on Thursday.
Amid earlier disagreements, a truce collapsed last week and the Syrian government pressed ahead with its offensive.
Then came Saturday’s suspected chemical attack in Douma, followed by international condemnation and threats of military action. Syria and Russia deny the attack took place.
The evacuation deal called for the formation of a local council to administer Douma. Thousands of civilians are staying in Douma, and some fighters are also expected to stay, on condition that they hand in their weapons. More than 13,500 Syrian rebel fighters and their families left Douma this month.