The Syrian army and its allies are on the verge of completely seizing the devastated opposition-held district of Qaboun after more than two months of aerial strikes and artillery shelling, while possibly consolidating troops along its southern borders with Jordan and Iraq to take over areas formerly held by Daesh.
More than 2,000 members of the Syrian opposition and their families left Qaboun, a suburb which lies on the northeastern edge of the Syrian capital Damascus on Sunday, state media said. The area has been largely reduced to rubble after being struck by hundreds of aerial strikes and missiles over a period of about 80 days.
"The regime has threatened to destroy what is left of Qaboun and will not accept anything but a military solution," Abdullah al Qabouni from the local council of the district said.
The rebels had agreed overnight to a secret evacuation deal after being cornered in a small pocket of Qaboun.
The Syrian army had resumed its intensive bombardment of the district on Wednesday after a one-day ultimatum it gave fighters from the area to surrender and agree to evacuate to opposition-held areas in northern Syria.
Hundreds were evacuated this week from the adjacent Barzeh district after the opposition there decided to lay down their arms and leave for the rebel-held Idlib province.
Syrian state media said at least 2,289 people, half of whom were fighters, had left the district on Sunday. The opposition put the total figure at more than 1,500 people.
At least three people were killed when a shooting took place at a bus among a convoy of more than 30 buses ferrying the evacuees northwards out of Damascus, a rebel source said.
The loss of Qaboun following Barzeh is another blow to rebels as they battle to keep a foothold in the capital.
Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad has promoted the use of evacuation deals, along with what his regime calls "reconciliation" accords, for opposition-held areas that surrender to the regime as a way of reducing bloodshed.
But the UN has criticised both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.
The opposition accuses the regime of seeking to evict Sunni inhabitants in these areas to change demographics. They say it would eventually pave the way for Shias who back Assad's rule to take over their homes.
The regime denies this claim.
Army advances were made possible after tunnels between Qaboun and Barzeh were cut off and the army isolated the areas from the rest of the main rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta.
The tightening of the siege in Qaboun and Barzeh forced the opposition fighters to eventually agree to deals worked out elsewhere that force them to pull back to northern Syria.
"They besieged us and even medicines for children or any supplies were no longer left ... and people died of hunger," Ahmad Khatib, who was among those who left on Friday, said.
A demoralised force
Opposition fights say bloody infighting this month has also weakened their resolve.
Fighters in Qaboun and Barzeh said they were not sent reinforcements from powerful rebel groups in the Eastern Ghouta district.
Eastern Ghouta remains the only major opposition bastion near Damascus and the fall of Qaboun and Barzeh have removed a main line of defence that protected it.
Regime sends reinforcements towards Iraqi border
The Syrian regime aided by Iranian-backed militias was moving troops to a desert region near its border with Iraq and Jordan just as US-backed fighters were consolidating control in an area from which Daesh had recently pulled out, opposition sources and commanders said on Monday.
They said their intelligence showed that hundreds of Syrian troops and Shia militias with tanks and heavy equipment had moved in the last few days to the town of Sabaa Biyar, in a sparsely-populated desert territory that goes all the way to the Jordanian and Iraqi border known as the Syrian Badia.
The remote town near the strategic Damascus-Baghdad highway was captured by the regime and its allies last week as they seek to prevent areas left by the hardline militants from falling into the hands of the Free Syrian Army(FSA) rebels say.
"They have sent big reinforcements from artillery to tanks and armoured vehicles," said Major Issam al Reis, the spokesperson for the so-called Southern Front group of FSA fighter groups.
The Syrian regime was not immediately available for comment.