AMMAN: Buses carrying 8,000 fighters and civilians began departing the mountain region along the Syrian-Lebanese border toward northwest Syria on Wednesday as part of a deal struck last week between Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and Hezbollah, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.
By Wednesday afternoon, nearly 100 buses left Jeroud Arsal—a mountainous region on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria—for rebel-held Idlib province, Khaled Raed, a school supervisor in Arsal helping coordinate the departure, told Syria Direct the same day.
Current and former fighters with hardline Islamist faction Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, as well as "women, children and the elderly" left on Wednesday, Raed said.
An estimated 60 more buses are scheduled to depart in staggered shifts throughout the rest of Wednesday, he added.
The current evacuations are part of a ceasefire agreement signed last Thursday by Hezbollah and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a hardline Islamist coalition led by Jabhat a-Nusra, formerly Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra.
The deal, which went into effect on July 27, ushered in a truce between the two sides after a week of clashes in Arsal, in the west Qalamoun Mountains, Syria Direct reported last week.
Hezbollah had announced an offensive “to cleanse Jeroud Arsal and Qalamoun” of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham on June 21 through its Central War Media news outlet.
The agreement will see HTS fighters completely vacate Jeroud Arsal, reportedly used as a base of operations and supply route for the hardline rebel group since 2013.
On July 26, Hezbollah's Central War Media posted a video of the militia's fighters unearthing an elaborate series of tunnels—allegedly an HTS military headquarters—dug into Arsal’s rugged landscape.
It was not immediately clear how many fighters for Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham are leaving Jeroud Arsal as part of the truce agreement.
Emad a-Din Mujahid, director of media relations for HTS, told Syria Direct on Wednesday that he would not comment on the number of fighters until the convoys safely reached Idlib province.
Arsal camp residents prepare to depart on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Ahmad al-Qasir.
Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, then Jabhat a-Nusra, previously controlled territory on the Syrian side of the west Qalamoun Mountains as well as inside Lebanon. But Syrian regime forces and allied militias recaptured the majority of the border region through offensives in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Rebel-regime clashes along Syria’s border at the time displaced tens of thousands of residents, many of whom fled to camps in Lebanon’s Arsal region.
Civilians living in the displacement camps of Jeroud Arsal wishing to return to Syria are allowed to do so under the recent Hezbollah-HTS agreement.
Prior to Wednesday’s evacuation, at least 40,000 Syrian refugees resided the camps of Arsal just west of the border according to UNHCR registration statistics from June.
Over the past month, the Lebanese army, which controls Arsal’s displacement camps, carried out a series of security “raids and inspections in search of terrorists” sheltering in the area, according to a June 30 army statement.
Many of the displaced Syrians are leaving for Idlib province on Wednesday due to “the fear that clings to the camps after the raids,” said Khaled Raed, who coordinated registration of camp residents for the departure.
Residents poured into the streets in Arsal on Wednesday, with evacuees slowly gathering their belongings and boarding the buses destined for northwest Syria.
“It’s an incredibly sad scene,” Ahmad al-Qasir, a journalist in the Jeroud Arsal region, told Syria Direct on Wednesday, “cries, weeping and farewells between those who will leave and those who will remain.”
A convoy of Arsal camp residents will have another chance to leave the mountainous border region in the upcoming days alongside fighters for Saraya Ahl a-Sham, a Free Syrian Army-affiliated battalion in Jeroud Arsal.
The FSA group will also leave as part of the ceasefire agreement, Omar a-Sheikh, a spokesman for the rebel battalion, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“HTS and its fighters will leave first, then us,” said a-Sheikh.
Saraya Ahl a-Sham will depart for Syria’s east Qalamoun Mountains rather than Idlib province with any civilians wishing to leave Jeroud Arsal.