AMMAN: Civilian, medical and military sources told Syria Direct on Wednesday that a new deal will allow rebels and some residents to leave regime-blockaded towns near Damascus in exchange for the evacuation of all residents from two rebel-blockaded Shiite towns in Idlib province over the next two months.
The blockaded settlements at the heart of the agreement are already tied by the often-violated “Four Towns Agreement,” an Iranian-brokered deal between pro-regime forces and major Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham, signed in September 2015. Whatever happens in one town, including aid deliveries and humanitarian evacuations, must happen in all four.
Under this week’s deal, reportedly brokered by Qatar and Iran, all of the roughly 20,000 residents of Shiite-majority al-Fuaa and Kufraya in Idlib province would be evacuated from the rebel-blockaded, bombarded towns over a 60-day period beginning on April 4.
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, would be permitted to do so.
Regime-blockaded Madaya earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Madaya.
Muhammad Zeitoun, an Ahrar a-Sham commander in Zabadani, confirmed the existence of a deal between pro-regime Hezbollah and Ahrar a-Sham to Syria Direct on Tuesday.
The following day, Zeitoun published the terms of the deal via social media. In addition to evacuations from the four blockaded towns, fighters with Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, would be evacuated from south Damascus, he wrote on messaging app Telegram.
“All those wishing to leave may do so,” Zeitoun wrote on Wednesday, adding “we do not advise staying, as this regime does not keep its word.”
Official Syrian and Iranian state media have not confirmed the existence of an agreement.
For its part, the anti-Assad Syrian National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces issued a statement on Wednesday asserting its “absolute refusal and condemnation of any plan that aims to expel civilians in any part of Syria,” including al-Fuaa and Kufraya. The Coalition condemned the deal between Ahrar a-Sham and Hezbollah as “demographic change.”
Accompanying the evacuations, the deal reportedly stipulates a nine-month ceasefire in encircled south Damascus, the two outer Damascus towns, al-Fuaa and Kufraya as well as a number of rebel-held Idlib towns in the surrounding area.
A preliminary ceasefire in the affected areas began at midnight on Wednesday, with sources on the ground telling Syria Direct that there was no bombardment or sniper attacks throughout the day.
During the ceasefire, humanitarian aid is to be allowed “uninterrupted entry” into all settlements covered in the agreement, according to Zeitoun.
A later stage of the reported agreement provides for the release of 1,500 detainees currently held in regime prisons.
On Wednesday, Syria Direct reached out to nearly half a dozen civilians and medical professionals living in all areas covered by the proposed agreement—in Idlib, Outer Damascus and southern Damascus—to find out what they had heard about it, and what they think about the possibility of evacuation.
All said they had heard about the deal. The resounding consensus from those in Madaya, Zabadani, al-Fuaa and Kufraya, was that residents are tired of violence, and are willing to accept any solution that breaks the four sieges.
Offloading aid in Madaya in March 2015. Photo courtesy of Madaya.
In Madaya, “people are talking about the deal in the streets,” Rula Ghussun, a 31-year-old resident told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “They can’t believe this is happening.”
Rula’s brother, Ali, died of kidney failure in the blockaded town last month. He needed dialysis, but was not allowed to leave Madaya, which has been encircled by Hezbollah snipers and landmines since mid-2015.
Under the Four Towns agreement, medical cases could only leave Madaya and Zabadani if there were a parallel evacuation from al-Fuaa and Kufraya. So Ali languished and died in great pain.
Now, Rula is conflicted about the possibility of leaving Madaya. “On one hand, I do not want to leave my hometown,” she told Syria Direct. “But I do not want to stay and remain under the rule of those who caused the death of my brother.”
For others, the choice is clearer. “I will be among the first to leave Madaya,” Eihab, a 26-year-old resident told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “I am tired of living like this.”
Hundreds of kilometers north, in rebel-held Idlib province, Hussein, a 31-year-old nurse from pro-regime Kufraya, feels similarly.
“People will accept any solution that lets them escape the siege,” he said, “even leaving their homes.”
After two years of blockade and bombardment by rebels, “all people want is to sleep in safety,” he added. “They don’t want anything else.”