AMMAN: Parallel evacuations from two besieged pockets—one government-held, one rebel-held—were scheduled to begin in Idlib and Damascus on Monday, bringing the Syrian government one step closer to completely dislodging opposition forces near the capital.
Under a deal with the Syrian government, approximately 350 Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) fighters and civilians were slated to leave Yarmouk camp in south Damascus on Monday in exchange for the parallel evacuation of more than 1,000 residents from the rebel-encircled, Shiite-majority towns of al-Fuaa and Kufraya in northwestern Syria.
Some 20 buses entered al-Fuaa and Kufraya on Monday to bring evacuees from the northern Idlib countryside to government-held parts of Aleppo province, local pro-government media outlets reported.
The two towns are home to both pro-government fighters and civilians. Hani Rasheed, a member of a pro-government militia in al-Fuaa, told Syria Direct via Facebook on Monday that “women, children and the elderly” were to make up most of the evacuees.
Meanwhile, buses waited just outside Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus, to evacuate HTS fighters and civilians from the encircled pocket, Syrian state media agency SANA reported on Monday.
Although the majority of Yarmouk is held by the Islamic State (IS), HTS—a hardline coalition led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—controls a small, isolated pocket in the camp pinned between between government- and IS-held territory.
Yarmouk camp and other nearby IS-held districts are currently the target of an ongoing air and ground offensive as the Syrian government aims to regain full control of the capital and its surroundings. Neighboring Free Syrian Army (FSA)-held districts of south Damascus, meanwhile, have reached a separate surrender and evacuation agreement with the government.
Monday’s scheduled evacuations from Yarmouk and the Idlib towns were to be the first under a deal for “the liberation of the besieged town of Kufraya and al-Fuaa,” in stages until the beginning of Ramadan on May 14, SANA reported on Sunday.
The state media agency claimed in the same report that a total of 5,000 residents would leave the Idlib towns, which have been blockaded and periodically shelled by rebel forces since 2015.
An additional clause of the agreement stipulates the release of dozens of HTS-held detainees from Ishtabraq, a formerly Alawite-majority town in Idlib’s western countryside, Syrian state media and the HTS-run Ebaa News Agency reported.
The Victory Army, an operations room including former HTS iteration Jabhat a-Nusra, captured roughly 100 prisoners, including women and children, from the town in 2015 during a successful military offensive against government forces in Syria’s northwest.
HTS fighters have been slated to leave their positions in the Yarmouk camp of south Damascus for more than a year. The evacuation was originally stipulated in a clause of the Four Towns Agreement, a deal struck in March 2017 for the evacuation of fighters and residents from al-Fuaa and Kufraya as well as two besieged, rebel-held towns in the Damascus countryside.
Over the past year, the Syrian government and HTS coordinated evacuations of injured fighters from HTS-held Yarmouk in exchange for Kufraya and al-Fuaa residents in need of medical treatment in anticipation of a full evacuation. But until Monday, no concrete steps followed for the full evacuation of HTS-held Yarmouk and the thousands of people remaining in the besieged, Shiite-majority towns in Idlib.
A statement published by Ebaa News Agency via Telegram on Monday claimed that the evacuation of HTS fighters resulted from the Syrian government’s “scorched earth campaign” on the Yarmouk camp, citing the head of the rebel coalition’s security office, Khaled al-Homsi.
Emad a-Din Mujahid, head of the HTS media relations office, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Prior to the scheduled evacuation, pro-government forces launched more than 40 airstrikes, 20 surface-to-surface missiles as well as dozens of artillery shells into south Damascus on Sunday alone, the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), a London-based monitoring group with correspondents in the pocket, reported on Monday.
A bulldozer clears a path for buses to enter HTS-controlled Yarmouk on Monday. Photo courtesy of SANA.
But despite Syrian state media and HTS statements confirming the agreement, one Yarmouk resident and a fighter in al-Fuaa told Syria Direct on Monday that a series of delays and false starts over the past year make them skeptical the evacuations will go as planned.
“I can’t tell you right now whether we’re leaving or not,” said Omar al-Qaysar, a civil society activist in the HTS-held pocket of the Yarmouk camp. As of Monday afternoon, the Yarmouk resident said he was waiting for the convoy of buses to enter the camp.
“We have no confidence,” said pro-government fighter Rasheed in al-Fuaa, who noted that an attack on a previous convoy of evacuees from the two towns one year ago remains fresh in his memory and that of his fellow residents.
In April 2017, an unclaimed suicide car bombing just outside of government-held Aleppo city claimed the lives of more than 100 evacuees from al-Fuaa and Kufraya, Syria Direct reported at the time.
“People are afraid that what happened last time will happen again,” said Rasheed.
While buses gathered just outside HTS-held territory in south Damascus on Monday, rebel factions to the east made their own preparations to surrender and evacuate their territory in the Syrian capital’s southern reaches.
The factions in control of the pocket’s eastern half announced on Sunday they had “reached an agreement with the Syrian government” through Russian mediators for the surrender and evacuation of the FSA-controlled towns in south Damascus in a statement by rebel negotiations committee published via social media.
Despite being announced the same day, the FSA agreement “is not connected to the HTS agreement whatsoever,” said Warad al-Kaswani, a spokesman for the rebel faction Ababil al-Houran.
As in other similar surrender agreements, rebel fighters, their families and any civilians wishing to do so will travel by bus out of south Damascus as Syrian government forces reassert control. Russian military police are to oversee the transition, as has been the case in other areas.
“The evacuation to the north will begin tomorrow, God willing,” rebel spokesman Kaswani said, adding that the exact destination of the convoy had yet to be confirmed.
Spokesman al-Kaswani and one rebel brigade commander told Syria Direct that the opposition factions in south Damascus began handing over their frontline positions with IS to Syrian government forces on Monday as part of the agreement.
The handover of rebel frontlines positions on Monday means that Syrian government forces now completely encircle Yarmouk camp and the handful of districts that remain under the control of IS.
The IS-, HTS- and rebel-held territories of south Damascus are the last remaining enclaves outside of Syrian government control after a series of evacuation agreements saw opposition forces depart East Ghouta, the city of Dumayr and East Qalamoun over the past two months.