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‘Deal underway’ for evacuation of two Shiite-majority Idlib towns: rebel source

Al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents calling for an end to the […]

Al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents calling for an end to the siege in May 2018. Photo courtesy of Kufraya and al-Fuaa Media Office.

AMMAN: Syrian rebels and Iranian negotiators brokered a deal on Tuesday to evacuate 7,000 residents of two encircled, Shiite-majority towns in Idlib province in exchange for the release of hundreds of government-held detainees and rebel prisoners, a source familiar with the negotiations told Syria Direct.

“All residents” of the neighboring Idlib province towns of al-Fuaa and Kufraya are to be evacuated under the terms of an agreement currently under negotiation, a source with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) said, requesting anonymity because no deal had been publicly announced.

Approximately 7,000 people, including both civilians and members of pro-government militias, remain in al-Fuaa and Kufraya. The towns, located approximately four kilometers northeast of Idlib city, have been under siege and periodic bombardment by rebel forces since the latter captured Idlib province in 2015.

HTS, a rebel coalition led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, is the leading faction currently encircling al-Fuaa and Kufraya.

In exchange for the evacuation of the two Shiite-majority towns under Tuesday’s reported agreement, 1,500 detainees held by the Syrian government were to be released in addition to 36 rebel prisoners held by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

HTS spokesman Emad a-Din Mujahid confirmed that negotiations were “ongoing” over the fate of al-Fuaa and Kufraya on Tuesday, but stressed that “the matter is subject to change.”

Meanwhile, Muhammad Khair Mustafa Haj Sadeq, a resident of al-Fuaa and Kufraya who coordinates between the encircled towns and rebel groups during evacuations, told Syria Direct that he had heard “leaked” details of an agreement, but “no official word” had reached him on Tuesday.

The anonymous HTS source, speaking to Syria Direct on Wednesday, said the hardline faction had a “great interest” in signing a final deal for the evacuation of the encircled towns to prevent any military campaign by pro-government forces aimed at breaking the siege.

“The towns’ presence is a danger to the liberated north,” the HTS source added.

As rebel-besieged towns, Idlib’s al-Fuaa and Kufraya have repeatedly been used as bargaining chips in negotiations between Syrian rebel factions, Qatar, Hezbollah, the Syrian government and Iran in recent years.

From September 2015 until 2017, al-Fuaa and Kufraya were linked with the Outer Damascus towns of Madaya and Zabadani under the so-called “Four Towns Agreement,” an Iranian-brokered deal between pro-government forces and major Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham. Under the agreement, all deliveries of aid and medical evacuations from the four settlements had to occur simultaneously.

Following the total evacuation of civilians in Madaya and Zabadani in April 2017, a subsequent deal was reached to evacuate thousands of al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents three months ago in exchange for the parallel exit of scores of HTS fighters and their families from Yarmouk camp in south Damascus during a major offensive by pro-government forces against the last remaining pockets of territory in the Syrian capital held by rebel and hardline Islamist groups.

However, al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents refused to leave at the time unless they could depart in a single round of evacuations. After a series of delays, as well as the successful evacuation of HTS fighters from Yarmouk, the rebel coalition stated they were no longer bound to the agreement and evacuation buses left empty.

Al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents’ refusal to evacuate in multiple rounds came against the backdrop of an unclaimed suicide car bombing in April 2017 that targeted a previous convoy of evacuees from the two towns, killing more than 120 people. In the aftermath of the bombing, evacuations were put on hold while scores of injured evacuees went missing after being taken to hospitals in rebel-held territory.

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