AMMAN: After months of encirclement and sporadic shelling, Ahrar a-Sham rebels made their first moves towards a direct assault on a Shiite-majority village in Idlib province on Monday with twin explosions targeting the regime’s defensive lines around it.

Ahrar a-Sham fighters tunneled approximately 350 meters from their positions outside al-Fuaa to place the explosives under pro-regime militias’ defensive lines surrounding it, Ibrahim al-Shimali, an activist in the Idlib countryside, told Syria Direct on Monday.

The rebels detonated a BMP armored truck just west of the village early Monday morning, and blew up tons of explosives in the tunnel fifteen minutes later, al-Shimali said. The blasts killed and injured dozens of regime soldiers and their allies, pro-opposition Eldorar reported.

“The goal of both explosions was to blow up the fortifications in front of the Shiite militias around al-Fuaa, which are a strong line of defense for the regime,” al-Shimali said.

Villages under siege

Alongside the Abu a-Dhuhur military airbase, the Shiite-majority villages of al-Fuaa and neighboring Kafariya are the last two regime-held villages in the northwestern Syrian province. Surrounded by Ahrar a-Sham fighters since March of this year, the towns’ isolation increased after the Victory Army coalition took control of Idlib city, roughly 7km southwest of al-Fuaa, from regime forces.

The two villages “are completely encircled; nothing can get in except via airdrops, which throw them food and supplies, though most fall outside of the two villages,” an Ahrar a-Sham fighter told pro-opposition Orient News last month.

The closest regime position lies more than 50km away, the same site reported, likely referring to the Abu a-Dhuhur military airport, making it nearly impossible for reinforcements or assistance to reach the two towns.

Some rebels take pains to point out that civilians are not the main target of Victory Army efforts to encircle the Shiite villages.

“Both villages . . . resemble a military barracks, nearly empty of women and children. There are only men and weapons,” Abdul Rahman al-Idlibi, the alias of a fighter with Ahrar a-Sham told Syria Direct in an interview this past June.

“I think that Kafariya and al-Fuaa might be, in the future, a card in the rebels’ hands.”

 Ahrar a-Sham detonates a tunnel Monday under regime defensive lines in al-Fuaa.Photo courtesy of Ahrar a-Sham Lens.

‘A card in rebels’ hands’

Monday’s attacks also come five days after negotiations between Ahrar a-Sham and an Iranian delegation to break the regime encirclement and bombardment of the regime-encircled Outer Damascus city of Zabadani broke down last Wednesday, Shaam News Network reported on Sunday.

Since early July, regime and Hezbollah forces have converged on the town of Zabadani, considered the gateway into the Qalamoun mountains near the Lebanese border, to retake it from opposition forces who have held it since early 2012.

Direct negotiations between an Ahrar a-Sham delegation acting in the name of Zabadani civilians and an Iranian delegation in Turkey that began just over a week ago in Istanbul broke down on Wednesday after rebels were unwilling to accept Iranian conditions.

An Ahrar a-Sham announcement about the Zabadani negotiations posted to social media on Wednesday said they had broken off the talks in response to Iranian requests to move the residents of Zabadani, Kafariya and al-Fuaa to other undefined areas.

The prospect of vacating civilians from Zabadani amounts to “sectarian expulsion,” the Ahrar announcement read.