HTS to leave mountain region along Syria-Lebanon border as part of truce agreement

AMMAN: Fighters with the hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) will evacuate the mountainous region on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria as part of ceasefire agreement with Hezbollah announced on Thursday, rebel sources told Syria Direct.

The ceasefire stipulates the “secure departure of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham fighters and their families to Idlib city” from the Jeroud Arsal border area, a member of the HTS media office who asked that his name not be mentioned, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The deal comes one week after Hezbollah fighters launched a military offensive, with Syrian air support, in the west Qalamoun Mountains that run along Syria’s western border with Lebanon “to cleanse Jeroud Arsal and Qalamoun of armed terrorists,” Hezbollah news outlet Central War Media announced on July 21.

HTS reportedly used the Arsal region as a base of operations with its supply lines running through the area. Pro-regime forces wrested control of the majority of HTS-controlled territory in west Qalamoun on the Syrian side of the border through offensives in 2014 and 2015.

Throughout Hezbollah's six-day offensive near the Syrian border, the militia's official outlets reported steady gains against HTS fighters in a two-pronged attack on the mountainous border region. HTS, in its own media, disputed the extent of the advances. 

  Hezbollah fighters in mountainous Arsal on July 26. Photo courtesy of AFP/Anwar Amro.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a rebel coalition including Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, which was formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra—has maintained a presence in the west Qalamoun Mountains since 2013. Saraya Ahl a-Sham, a Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated battalion, also holds territory there.

The main catalyst for a ceasefire agreement, the Saraya negotiator who was present for the ceasefire talks told Syria Direct, was the recent capture of three Lebanese Hezbollah fighters by HTS.

On Wednesday, HTS posted a video of one of the captured Hezbollah fighters on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

“If the attacks on Arsal and West Qalamoun do not stop, these will be the last moments of my life,” the prisoner said in the video in what appeared to be a scripted statement. 

In a televised speech on Wednesday broadcast on Al-Manar TV, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah signaled that the Arsal offensive would soon be completed, but left room for negotiation.

“While the battle is approaching its end, we must take our time and not rush into things,” Nasrallah said, “and give a chance for a settlement that would allow the militants to pull back under certain conditions.”

Hezbollah's official Central War Media announced a ceasefire in Jeroud Arsal at six o'clock the following morning.

In addition to HTS fighters, any Syrian refugees who wish to leave camps in Lebanon's Arsal region and accompany them to Syria’s opposition-held northwest will be allowed to do so.

The agreement also calls for “a complete military de-escalation starting on July 27,…the preservation of the safety of Syrian refugees wishing to stay in Arsal by the Lebanese army” and a prisoner exchange, according to a copy of the terms the HTS media spokesman sent to Syria Direct.

Syria Direct asked the HTS media representative how many fighters with the Islamist rebel coalition will depart the border region as part of the agreement, but he declined to comment.

It is not immediately clear when evacuations would get underway, though the agreement stipulates a three-day ceasefire effective Thursday.

Alongside HTS, an estimated 150 fighters with the FSA's Saraya Ahl a-Sham are also slated to leave the Jeroud Arsal area, a negotiator for the rebel battalion who asked his name not be mentioned, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

Saraya Ahl a-Sham had previously agreed to a ceasefire with Hezbollah last week on the second day of the military offensive, withdrawing from the frontlines to the nearby town of Arsal.

Under the deal, the negotiator said, Saraya fighters will travel to an opposition-held pocket east of Damascus—Syria’s east Qalamoun Mountains—along with light and heavy artillery. Syrian refugees wishing to leave Jeroud Arsal may also accompany them.

The ceasefire does not include the territories controlled by the Islamic State (IS) in the west Qalamoun Mountains, just north of positions held by HTS.

For now, it appears the truce is holding, Mohammad, an activist and resident of one of Arsal’s displacement camps told Syria Direct on Thursday. “We haven’t heard any gunshots near the camps today.”

At least 40,000 Syrian refugees currently live in displacement camps in Lebanon's Arsal region due west of the border according to UNHCR registration statistics from June.    

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.