THE most powerful Syrian rebel faction on the fringes of Damascus has begun abandoning its stronghold in the once rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta.

The move sets the stage for the final chapter of the government’s relentless offensive to fully retake the area after seven years of revolt.

The first fighters from the Army of Islam left the town of Douma in the morning hours of today as part of an evacuation deal that will hand the town to the Syrian government. The rebels were heading to Jarablus, a town in northern Syria where control of the territory is shared between Syrian rebels and Turkish forces.

More than 50 buses were dispatched by the Syrian government to Douma to take the rebels out. By midday, only a handful had left for the north in three buses.

There was no immediate comment from the Army of Islam.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the civil war through a network of activists on the ground, also reported the evacuation. Rami Abdurrahman, the observatory’s director, said some factions within the Army of Islam oppose evacuating and effectively surrendering Douma to the government of President Bashar Assad.

The deal over Douma would mark the end of a weeks-long push by Assad’s forces to consolidate their control over eastern Ghouta.