Up in smoke: Unidentified assailants attack buses in Idlib, endangering Aleppo evacuation

AMMAN: A deal to secure safe passage for more than 40,000 people from rebel-held east Aleppo city appeared to disintegrate once again on Sunday after buses sent to evacuate thousands of residents from two Shiite-majority villages in Idlib province were attacked and burned by unidentified assailants.

“Civilians and some masked men” attacked and burnt the buses outside the rebel-encircled villages of Kufraya and al-Fuaaon Sunday, activist Mahmoud al-Idlibi told Syria Direct.

Pictures and videos posted online by Idlib residents and activists show buses ablaze on the side of a road in Idlib province, northwest Syria.

"The buses that came to transport the rawafid have been burned,” said the man filming one such video, using a derogatory term for Shia Muslims. “We will burn all those who come to move them.” In the video, people wearing civilian clothing gather near the burning buses as gunfire, likely celebratory, can be heard in the background.

 Evacuation bus set ablaze in Idlib on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Subhi Sayyed Issa

The buses were in Idlib to evacuate a first wave of 1,250 people from al-Fuaa and Kufraya to regime territory in Aleppo in exchange for the parallel evacuation of half the people currently left in opposition-held east Aleppo to rebel areas.

After the attack on the buses in Idlib, activists in east Aleppo reported that a convoy that left the besieged neighborhoods carrying civilians earlier on Sunday was turned back and Red Crescent teams withdrew. Syria Direct could not independently verify the reports.

Sunday’s attempted evacuations were the latest iteration of a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia to allow between 40-50,000 people left in rebel-held east Aleppo safe passage to nearby opposition territories.

Since an initial ceasefire deal was agreed late last week followed by the evacuation of roughly 10,000 people from Aleppo on Thursday, subsequent evacuations have been delayed for days as both rebels and regime forces trade accusations of sabotage.

The latest revived deal stipulated the evacuation of all those remaining in east Aleppo in exchange for 4,000 people from Kufraya and al-Fuaa. The deal also stipulated the evacuation of 1,500 fighters, injured and sick people from regime-besieged Madaya and Zabadani in Outer Damascus province.

At the time of publication, it was not immediately clear who was responsible for the Idlib bus attack, which appears to have once again scuttled the evacuation agreement.

Syrian state media agency SANA reported that “terrorist organizations” were behind the attack. Russian state media did not immediately report the incident.

 Wounded east Aleppo residents wait for evacuation to rebel territory on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Halab Today.

Activist al-Idlibi said that local military and civilian authorities had stepped in to control the situation.

“Rebel factions and civil institutions immediately intervened to stop the burning and take control of the situation,” Mahmoud al-Idlibi told Syria Direct on Sunday. “Buses are continuing to enter Kufraya and al-Fuaa, and some are preparing to leave.” Syria Direct could not independently verify al-Idlibi’s account.

“We have brothers and sisters in Aleppo and Madaya,” Abu Saleh Tahhan, a military commander in Ahrar a-Sham, one of the largest Syrian rebel factions in the Jaish al-Fateh coalition that is besieging al-Fuaa and Kufraya, tweeted on Sunday, criticizing the attack.

“Even if we have to trade them for these rafidah creatures,” he said, using a derogatory term for Shia Muslims, “there is nothing wrong with that, and no time to waste with these childish acts.”

Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a prominent Salafi cleric with close ties to Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Jabhat a-Nusra, released a voice message on Sunday criticizing the burning of the buses as “impermissible.”

 Residents of an Idlib town blockaded by rebels waited for evacuation to regime-held Aleppo on Sunday. Photo courtesy of N.Z.F.K.

Meanwhile, thousands of Aleppo residents are waiting for evacuation in the streets, huddling around fires to stay warm.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 people in all remain inside rebel-held east Aleppo on Sunday waiting for evacuation, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

The Aleppo Media Center reported that an ill 26-year-old man died in east Aleppo while waiting for evacuation on Sunday after his “health deteriorated.”

On Sunday morning, prior to the Idlib bus attack, “people gathered in the thousands,” east Aleppo activist Muhammad al-Halabi told Syria Direct. “People have had their fill of death and fear.”

“People are in very difficult conditions,” activist Zaher al-Zaher told Syria Direct. “I don’t know if anybody wants to stay like this.”

Rebel factions in Aleppo city released a statement on Sunday condemning the “act committed by irresponsible individuals near Kufraya and al-Fuaa” and requesting “all relevant parties in the area to stop these actions take the necessary measures.”

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.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.