On sidelines of ‘Four Towns’ Agreement, some pro-opposition Syrians disappointed by prisoner release

AMMAN: Syrians expressed frustration over an agreement to evacuate the residents of four besieged towns on Monday following days of protests, accusing both the government and rebels of failing to carry out provisions to secure the release of more than 1,500 regime-held prisoners.

An estimated 200 Syrians marched in the streets of Idlib’s eponymous provincial capital on Sunday, carrying signs reading: “Freedom for the detainees,” “You took our blood, you took our prisoners, you took our family members...what else do you want?” and “Who gave you the right to negotiate for us?”

The release of the detainees in regime prisons is one of several terms of the agreement to end the sieges of four towns across Syria. The blockaded towns are tied together by the “Four Towns Agreement,” an Iranian-brokered deal between pro-regime forces and major Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham that was signed in September 2015.

While the 2015 deal allowed for limited aid deliveries and medical evacuations, it failed to end of siege of the four towns—two in northwest Idlib province and two outside Damascus.

Under the latest version of the agreement, reportedly brokered last month by Qatar and Iran, all of the roughly 20,000 residents of Shiite-majority al-Fuaa and Kufraya in Idlib province began evacuating the rebel-blockaded, bombarded towns over a 60-day period that began earlier this month. 

In exchange, fighters, their families and any residents choosing to leave the regime-blockaded Outer Damascus towns of Zabadani and Madaya, home to a combined 40,000 people, were permitted to do so.

 Protestors in Idlib city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Baladi Media Network.

The deal also promises the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid to Yarmouk, a blockaded Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, as well as the release of 1,500 opposition-linked detainees.

The agreement is now being implemented by all sides, despite a deadly suicide bomb that nearly derailed the initial evacuations earlier this month. In the first evacuation from al-Fuaa and Kufraya, buses left with an estimated 5,000 residents—only to be met with a massive suicide car bomb that killed 100 people at a checkpoint just outside Aleppo city.

Four days later, an estimated 3,000 pro-regime fighters and civilian residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya boarded a convoy of buses and headed towards Aleppo city in the second round of evacuations from the two neighboring Idlib towns.

Meanwhile, almost 3,000 residents of Madaya and Zabadani rode buses north to Idlib.

As part of the agreement’s next stage, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy delivered aid to the Yarmouk camp on Sunday for the first time since 2015, residents inside the blockaded enclave told Syria Direct.

The last entry of aid to Yarmouk was in 2015. The Islamic State controls of most of the camp, while Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), an Islamist rebel coalition previously linked to Al-Qaeda, controls a handful of streets to the camp’s north.

Since the last aid delivery in 2015, residents of Yarmouk have requested international organizations bring them food and medicine. While aid deliveries have occurred in neighboring opposition-held districts Yalda and Babila, supplies had not entered the camp itself until Sunday.

Still, Sunday’s aid delivery only reached the area of Yarmouk under HTS control, where resident Umm Abdullah told Syria Direct she received “flour, oil, lentils, canned food, salt, rice and sugar.”

 Protestors in Idlib city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Baladi News Network.

“This aid was a lifesaver for us, after waiting so long, even though it is not enough after all this time under siege,” she said. “But it’s better than nothing.”

The majority of the camp that is under Islamic State control did not receive any of the aid delivery.

In exchange for receiving supplies, the roughly 200 HTS fighters in Yarmouk are to hand over the areas of the camp under their control to Assad’s forces and allied Palestinian militias, pro-opposition news outlet Zaman al-Wasl reported earlier this month.

HTS confirmed that the “terms of the agreement would include the entry of food and medical aid” into Yarmouk in return for “the exit of fighters and residents…to Idlib,” in a statement released earlier this month via their media outlet, Ebaa News Agency.

Syrian state news agency SANA did not report the aid delivery.

‘I want my son back’

Meanwhile, 275km north of Yarmouk in Idlib city, family members of regime-held prisoners told Syria Direct that the portion of the agreement most concerning them—the release of 1,500 detainees from regime prisons—isn’t being carried out in good faith.

Syrian state security forces reportedly released low-level criminals with short prison sentences and “no meaningful connections to the revolution,” said Ismail Adnani, president of the Idlib City Council. Adnani participated in Sunday’s demonstrations.

Residents who spoke to Syria Direct on Monday blamed both the Syrian government and opposition authorities involved in the agreement for failing to release detainees who had been held in prison “since the beginning of the revolution.”

The Syrian government reportedly released the first 750 prisoners, who come from across Syria, on Friday. Most of those released had only been in prison for “a month or less,” Ahmad Rajjal, an Idlib-based citizen journalist told Syria Direct.

It is unclear when the remaining 750 prisoners are set to be freed, though one month remains for Syrian government and opposition forces to carry out the promises stipulated in the agreement.

A spokesman for Ahrar a-Sham, a hardline Islamist faction that participated in the agreement, said the deal “never included any list of specific prisoners.” Ahrar vows to “improve the conditions of the deal in the upcoming stage” as the next round of prisoners are slated for release, spokesman Mohammad Abu Zaid told Syria Direct on Monday.

But those impacted by the detainee releases are skeptical, said Idlib activist Ahmad Rajjal. “There is a general climate of frustration that [families of the detained] were not asked for their opinion on this term of the agreement.”

 Food aid in Yarmouk camp on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Ebaa News Agency.

That frustration sparked protests on both Friday and Sunday in the streets of Idlib city, with family members of those still held in prison carrying protest signs and pictures of their loved ones.

“I went to the protests because I want my son back,” said Fatima, whose 35-year-old son, Khaled Abd al-Wahhab al-Ibrahim, has been imprisoned “with his family” by the Syrian government since 2013. “I had hoped that he would be released in accordance with the Four Towns Agreement, but the details of the agreement were kept hidden, and there was no coordination with us to list the names of our imprisoned family members.”

Fatima says she has had no information on her son’s or his family’s whereabouts since their arrest “due to a name mix-up” four years ago.

Umm Firas, another protestor, attended the demonstrations “because Jaish al-Fatah [an operations room that includes members of HTS and Ahrar a-Sham] did not work to release the prisoners.”

Her son, now 25, was detained on “terrorism” charges five years ago. State security forces transferred him to Adra, a prison on the outskirts of Damascus notorious for torture and prisoner abuse.

When the Syrian government released the first 750 prisoners on Friday, Umm Firas’ son “was not among those freed,” she told Syria Direct.

“Any hope I had that this agreement would secure his release was shattered.”

Majdoleen a-Zouabi, Mohammad Aloush and Marah Faraj contributed reporting.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.