AMMAN: Buses carrying 2,500 rebel fighters, their families and displaced civilians left the mountain region along the Syrian-Lebanese border on Monday for the rebel-held Damascus countryside as part of a ceasefire agreement signed last month with Hezbollah, a rebel spokesman told Syria Direct.
More than 40 buses departed Jeroud Arsal—a barren region on the Lebanese side of the Syrian border—carrying “400 fighters from Saraya Ahl a-Sham and their families,” Omar a-Sheikh, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army-affiliated faction, told Syria Direct on Monday.
Saraya Ahl a-Sham’s evacuation from Arsal, a base of operations used by the faction for offensives against pro-regime forces along Syria’s western border, is part of an agreement with Hezbollah signed in July. Monday’s convoy marks the departure of the last rebel group from the Lebanese side of the Syrian border.
Fighters for the hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and thousands of Syrian refugees left the mountain border region for Idlib province on August 2 as part of the same agreement, Syria Direct reported at the time.
The buses that departed Monday, however, will drive to the town of al-Ruheibah, 50km southeast of the Arsal border region, in the opposition-held east Qalamoun Mountains, reported Lebanon’s state media agency NNA on Monday.
Buses carrying fighters and civilian arrive at the Syrian side of border on Monday. Photo courtesy of Central War Media.
The majority of the fighters within Saraya Ahl a-Sham are from the cities and towns that dot the Qalamoun Mountains, which stretch east from Syria’s border with Lebanon.
Saraya Ahl a-Sham formed in September 2015 when about a dozen FSA-affiliated and Islamist militias merged into one rebel faction. However, elements of Saraya Ahl a-Sham have maintained a presence in the Arsal mountain region since 2013.
Within hours of the convoy’s departure, Lebanese army soldiers deployed in several areas of Jeroud Arsal, announced the Lebanese Armed Forces in a statement published on social media Monday.
The troop deployment is the next step in the process of “encircling and tightening the noose around the Islamic State terrorist group in Jeroud Ras Baalbeck and Qaa,” due north of Arsal, read the statement.
Islamist State militants control some 350 sq. km of sparsely populated mountain territory just north of Jeroud Arsal.
Over the past month, the Lebanese army carried out a series of security “raid and inspections in search of terrorists” sheltering in Jeroud Arsal’s displacement camps, according to a June 30 army statement.
The army raids and arrests in the makeshift displacement camps of Arsal were a main factor for nearly 8,000 Syria refugees who chose to leave the border region for Idlib province, Syria Direct reported last week.
Some 2,000 civilians left in Monday’s convoy alongside Saraya fighters.
At least 40,000 registered Syrian refugees live in the displacement camps of Arsal, according to UNHCR statistics from June, though the total number of refugees is estimated to be much higher.