Rebel siege of two Shiite-majority Idlib towns ends with total evacuation of residents, militiamen

Evacuees from al-Fuaa and Kufraya arrive in government-held south Aleppo on Thursday. Photo courtesy of SANA.

AMMAN: All remaining residents of two Shiite-majority towns in Idlib province were evacuated to government-held Aleppo province on Thursday under an agreement with opposition factions, ending a three-year rebel siege with the latest mass civilian displacement during the seven-year war in Syria.

“Al-Fuaa and Kufraya are empty,” posted a Facebook news page based in the two Idlib towns early Thursday morning. “Nothing remains but memories and the graves of the ancestors and martyrs.”

Syrian rebels agreed to a deal earlier this week with Iranian negotiators for the complete evacuation of approximately 7,000 residents remaining in Idlib province’s al-Fuaa and Kufraya in exchange for the release of more than 1,500 government-held detainees and Hezbollah-held rebel fighters, Syria Direct reported.

Syrian rebel factions led by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, a hardline Islamist coalition led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, had encircled, besieged, bombarded and periodically attacked al-Fuaa and Kufraya since 2015.

Just after midnight on Thursday, 121 buses accompanied by Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) ambulances began leaving al-Fuaa and Kufraya, Muhammad Haj Sadeq, a resident who coordinates between the encircled towns and rebel groups told Syria Direct.

“Turkish forces” were to accompany the evacuation buses during the journey to the crossing into government territory at the town of al-Eis, in southern Aleppo province, said Sadeq, “to ensure the safety of the convoy.”

As of mid-afternoon on Thursday, evacuation buses continued to arrive at government-held territory, Syrian state news agency SANA and pro-Assad Lebanese news channel Al-Mayadeen reported. Upon arrival, al-Fuaa and Kufraya residents were taken to temporary reception centers prepared for the evacuees.

Former government-held detainees amid evacuation of al-Fuaa and Kufraya on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Nedaa Syria.

En route to government territory, a number of buses’ windows were damaged and at least one woman from al-Fuaa and Kufraya injured by stones thrown by “gunmen,” the formerly al-Fuaa and Kufraya-based Facebook news page N.Z.F.K reported. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported stone-throwing in the rebel-held northeastern Idlib town of Taftanaz.

Following the evacuation, separate statements released by HTS and the HTS-backed Salvation Government, which administers much of rebel-held Idlib province, declared al-Fuaa and Kufraya “military areas” and forbade any civilians or fighters from entering until the completion of operations to remove landmines and explosives. Once the towns are cleared of explosives, read the HTS statement, displaced people would be given priority to move in to the abandoned homes.

One rebel fighter was killed and others injured by landmines near al-Fuaa and Kufraya on Thursday, local pro-opposition media reported.

Even so, pictures and videos purportedly taken inside the evacuated Idlib towns circulated on social media on Thursday. One correspondent for pro-opposition Orient News reportedly  filmed himself walking through a deserted al-Fuaa on Thursday, while a local photographer posted images of empty streets and bullet-pocked buildings inside the settlements.

Those images, as well as pictures of evacuees on green buses, were reminiscent of similar scenes in recent months during the evacuation of rebel-held towns and areas such as north Homs, East Ghouta, and south Damascus, accompanied by the mass displacement of residents and fighters.

The total evacuation of al-Fuaa and Kufraya  “aims at protecting the area and cleansing it of Iranian militias,” HTS spokesman Emad a-Din Mujahid told Syria Direct on Thursday. “The current situation of the revolution requires that this matter be concluded.”

This week’s evacuation deal included a prisoner exchange “being carried out at this moment,” added Mujahid. Of 1,500 detainees and prisoners held by the Syrian government to be freed under the deal, the vast majority, 80 percent, were detained since the beginning of 2018, HTS spox Mujahid said. Only 20 percent were detained 2011-2017.

At least 400 detainees released under the agreement arrived in rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria on Thursday, pro-opposition news site Nedaa Syria reported.

The deal also stipulated the release of an unknown number of Alawite villagers abducted by HTS—then known as Jabhat a-Nusra—from southeastern Idlib’s Ishtibraq three years ago, though no news about their release had been made public by the time of publication. The villagers have been held by HTS since the hardline faction captured Ishtibraq in 2015 and reportedly killed up to 200 civilians, according to the Syrian government.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

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.

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.