No evacuation for encircled Idlib towns after residents refuse multi-stage exit

AMMAN: The latest attempt to evacuate two encircled, pro-government towns in opposition-held Idlib fell through as empty buses left the towns on Monday evening following one week of civilian resistance against departing in multiple stages.

Local news pages and residents in the encircled towns of al-Fuaa and Kufraya reported that empty green buses left the towns on Monday night.

Thousands of residents of Shiite-majority al-Fuaa and Kufraya had been due to leave the rebel-encircled Idlib towns last week under a parallel evacuation agreement between hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and the Syrian government, Syria Direct reported.

The agreement, brokered on the government side by a Damascus-based negotiating team, provided for multiple stages of evacuations from al-Fuaa and Kufraya in exchange for scores of HTS fighters and residents from the Yarmouk camp in south Damascus.

Residents of Kufraya and al-Fuaa protesting the evacuation agreement on May 1. Photo courtesy Qawem Online.

Just over one week ago, 20 buses arrived in the pro-government towns of al-Fuaa and Kufraya to implement the first stage of the parallel agreement, and a number of sick and injured residents were evacuated, Al Jazeera reported last Tuesday.

However, remaining residents of the two towns refused to board the buses, demanding instead to be evacuated in one single batch. Dozens of people in the towns took to the streets in protest last Tuesday, demanding to leave in one single batch, according to local Facebook news page Qawem.

“Either the agreement will be implemented in this way or we will stay here till the last bullet,” Mohammad Kheir Sadiq, who is in charge of coordinating the implementation of the agreement in the towns, told Syria Direct last week.

Following a full HTS evacuation from Yarmouk and continued refusal by al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents to leave, the rebel coalition issued a statement last Wednesday announcing that they were no longer bound to the agreement but remained open to further negotiations about the towns in exchange for the release of government-held detainees.

Residents’ refusal to leave reflected a disconnect between residents and authorities inside the Idlib towns and negotiators in Damascus as well as mistrust in HTS following a series of false starts and half-implemented evacuations.

Rebel factions first encircled and besieged al-Fuaa and Kufraya in 2015. Since then, the two Shiite-majority towns have been repeatedly used as bargaining chips by opposition factions in negotiations with the Syrian government.

An empty bus leaving al-Fuaa and Kufraya on Monday. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Zannoba.

In March 2017, an agreement was reached to evacuate all 20,000 residents from the two towns over a 60-day period in exchange for the evacuation of 40,000 people from the then-opposition-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya in the Damascus countryside.

The evacuation of al-Fuaa and Kufraya, however, was obstructed after an unclaimed suicide car bombing killed 100 evacuees at the al-Rashideen checkpoint on the way to government-held parts of Aleppo in April 2017. The Rashideen bombing still haunts the memories of civilians in Kufraya and al-Fuaa, and many fear that something similar could happen again.

While Zabadani and Madaya were fully evacuated and eventually taken over by the government, only an estimated 8,000 people were successfully evacuated from al-Fuaa and Kufraya under last year’s agreement.

Two al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents opposed to a multi-stage evacuation told Syria Direct in recent days that previous deals had “split apart families.”

Jaffar al-Hussein, a 42-year-old teacher living in al-Fuaa, says he stayed behind when his wife and children evacuated last April after his son was injured by a sniper. He intended to follow in a later convoy, but he is still waiting for the next evacuation, to reunite with his family.

“I blame the negotiations committee,” al-Hussein told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “They should have clear conditions and then execute them precisely, especially because we’ve fallen into this same trap many times.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.