The Syrian government is close to taking full control of a rebel enclave near the capital just days after an alleged chemical weapons attack there sparked international outrage and calls for a retaliatory strike against the Assad regime.
French President Emmanuel Macron said there is proof the regime used chemical weapons last weekend in the rebel-held city of Douma, the biggest town in Eastern Ghouta, though he didn’t give details of the proof or how it was obtained.
Thousands of residents and rebels are leaving Douma following the suspected attack, which killed dozens of people—many of them women and children—and sickened hundreds. Rebels who were holding out agreed to a surrender and evacuation deal in the immediate wake of the attack.
At least three convoys of buses in recent days have already left Douma and taken civilians and armed rebels to parts of northern Syria still under opposition control. A fourth convoy of buses prepared Thursday to take another group, according to residents and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has carried out a military assault on Eastern Ghouta since the middle of February to consolidate control around Damascus. The relentless mortar attacks and air strikes compelled thousands to flee their homes in final rebel holdout in the Ghouta enclave. The rebel faction hasn’t commented on the evacuation deal.
The suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians has prompted the U.S. and its allies—including France, the U.K. and Saudi Arabia—to consider retaliatory strikes against the Syrian government.
In a television interview on Thursday, Mr. Macron said “we have the proof that last week chemical weapons were used—at least chlorine—and they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. ”
The French leader said he is working closely with President Donald Trump and they will decide how to respond “when it is the most useful and effective.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany wouldn’t join any military action on Syria but Berlin supported measures that signal to the Syrian government and its allies that the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable.
Mr. Trump and Moscow in recent days have traded threats over the Syria strikes, raising the prospect of a clash between U.S. and Russian military forces in the war-torn country.
After indicating that a strike against the Syrian regime is imminent, Mr. Trump on Thursday appeared to tone down the rhetoric a bit, saying in a tweet: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our “Thank you America?”
The U.S. and its allies have helped nearly defeat Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria after a yearslong battle. They have also backed some opponents of Mr. Assad but that support has mostly waned as the regime is emerging victorious in the seven-year civil war, and is now pushing to expand its territorial grip.
More than 165,000 people have already left Ghouta, according to Syrian state media. The Russian defense ministry said Thursday that more than 13,500 rebel fighters and their families had evacuated Douma alone.
Russia’s ministry said that Syrian forces had taken control of Douma along with Russia’s military police to guarantee security and order in the city.
“The situation in the city is stabilizing, the city has passed into control of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic,” the news agency Interfax quoted the ministry as saying in a statement.
But Syrian state media didn’t report it has taken control of the city and on Wednesday said the exit of Jaish al Islam rebels and their families was continuing.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a brief exchange of gunfire broke out Thursday when a group of regime forces along with negotiators and Russian journalists entered Douma and raised the Syrian flag. The group chanted in support of the Assad regime.
Rebels opened fire on the group, injuring a few people including two journalists, forcing the group to leave the city immediately, according to the Observatory.
—Nazih Osseiran in Beirut and William Horobin in Paris contributed to this article.