Evacuation deal begins in Syria with prisoner exchange
Government-rebel agreement may involve transfer of 10,000 people from four towns
This frame grab from the Syrian Central Military Media shows Syrian rebels after they were released as part of an evacuation deal.
The Syrian government and al-Qaeda-dominated insurgents on Wednesday exchanged 30 prisoners and the remains of nine people, respectively, in the first phase of an evacuation agreement.
The agreement involves residents from two Shia towns in the northwest of the country, who are surrounded by Sunni radicals, and fighters from two towns in the west who are besieged by government forces.
Eight women, four children and eight bodies from the Shia towns of Kefraya and Foua were exchanged for 19 gunmen and the body of a Lebanese pro-government fighter from Madaya and Zabadani.
The deal could involve the evacuation of as many as 10,000 people – 2,000 of them fighters from Madaya and Zabadani, who have held out since becoming surrounded by pro-government militiamen and Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas in mid-2015. Nearly 200 buses have been dispatched to carry out evacuations supervised by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Anti-government Sunni fighters and their families are to be transported to insurgent-held Idlib province and a Turkish-held enclave in the north while Shia villagers will be taken to government-controlled Damascus. The evacuation could last 60 days.
In October 2016, starvation in Madaya caught the world’s attention, compelling the government to allow food and medical supplies into the town as long as humanitarian aid was also delivered to Foua and Kefraya. The “four towns” have been paired since then, with humanitarian assistance delivered to all at the same time.
Critics of this deal, negotiated by Qatar, a sponsor of jihadi factions, and Iran, an ally of the government, argue it involves forcible displacement of populations. Although civilians may remain in Madaya and Zabadani, residents of Foua and Kefraya are set to leave.
While the government has reached “reconciliation” agreements with scores of insurgent-held locations for the withdrawal of fighters and their transport to Idlib, these operations have not involved the evacuation of entire populations except from the Old City of Homs in 2014 – where residents have returned – and the Damascus suburb of Daraya in 2016.
Some 2,500 insurgents and their families are currently being evacuated from al-Waer town in Homs province in a deal brokered under the government’s “reconciliation” programme. While some fighters have opted to surrender their arms in exchange for amnesty, in line with procedures normal in the “reconciliation” effort, others have been allowed to leave with their small arms for Idlib or the Turkish-held enclave around Jarablus on the Syria-Turkey border.
As many as 40,000 residents remain in al-Waer, which is besieged but not blockaded and where civilians employed elsewhere and students attending schools and universities in Homs city leave and return daily.
The ongoing withdrawal of fighters – many linked to al-Qaeda – is taking place under the third deal reached with the government, this one backed by Russia.