As the Syrian government maintains its stranglehold on a besieged Damascus suburb, allies in Russia and adversaries in Turkey are considering plans to evacuate hundreds of civilians caught in a growing humanitarian crisis.
Moscow and Ankara are discussing the relocation of hundreds of people from Eastern Ghouta, Turkey’s President said, according to Russian and Turkish news reports.
Various rebel groups control Eastern Ghouta, and the suburb has been surrounded by Syrian regime forces for more than four years. Eastern Ghouta is part of four de-escalation zones negotiated by the Russian, Iranian and Turkish governments in May.
In theory, residents in the area should be in a safe zone free from airstrikes, shelling and fighting. But they have suffered from both a lengthy siege and continued bombardment.
This has come amid a climate of peace talks and a victory declaration from Moscow in which Russian President Vladimir Putin said his military forces would begin to withdraw.
The beleaguered suburban enclave of 400,000 near the Syrian capital is at a “critical point,” says the International Committee of the Red Cross, with reports of malnourished children and sick and injured people being trapped.
Ahead of a trip to Sudan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara on Sunday that about 500 people, including 170 women and children, require “urgent humanitarian aid,” according to Turkey’s TRT and Russia’s Sputnik news agencies.
Erdogan said the Turkish and Russian chiefs of staff will work together to carry out the evacuation, TRT reported. The move would involve the Turkish Red Crescent and Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Organization.
“We are discussing with [Putin] how to evacuate them to our country without problems and provide them with medical assistance,” Sputnik quoted Erdogan as saying.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is considering a request to evacuate seven child cancer patients from Eastern Ghouta, the founder of the UK charity Doctors Under Fire told CNN Sunday.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said he directly contacted Assad’s office on Saturday, hoping to repeat his success in evacuating 500 children from Aleppo last year, when it was held by the rebels and besieged by Syrian and Russian forces.
At that time, he said, he appealed directly to the Syrian and Russian Presidents.
“When I heard about the seven [children] with cancer, we decided to try the same approach. Apparently al-Assad knows all about the children, and his office told us to call him back on Tuesday morning,” he told CNN.
Doctors Under Fire operates under the banner of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations.
De Bretton-Gordon said he is working with UN officials to facilitate access to Eastern Ghouta if he gets the OK on Tuesday, with Wednesday being the earliest the children could be evacuated.
UNICEF says 137 children “require immediate medical evacuation.”