Syrian rebels, Iran reach deal to evacuate villages

Deal reached to evacuate thousands from Foua and Kefraya in return for the release of hundreds of detainees in state prisons.

AMMAN - Buses arrived on Wednesday to evacuate thousands of people from two Shi'ite villages, which Sunni Islamist rebels have besieged for years, as part of a deal under which the Syrian government is expected to release hundreds of prisoners.

The villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, which are loyal to the Syrian government, will be emptied of all their residents and fighters, a commander in the regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters.

Idlib lies in Syria's northwest corner, the last major insurgent stronghold in the country and where neighbouring Turkey has deployed forces.

Some 7,000 people will leave the two villages, said al-Manar TV, run by Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement.

Population transfers have been a common feature of the seven-year Syrian war, which has killed an estimated half a million people and driven some 11 million people from their homes.

Most of the transfers have come at the expense of President Bashar al-Assad's opponents. Rebels and civilians have been bussed out of their hometowns to opposition territory in the north, as government forces advanced with critical help from Russia and Iran.

The opposition has decried it as a systematic policy of forcible displacement against those who oppose Assad.

The conflict took on a sectarian dimension as it swelled out of protests against Assad's rule in 2011. Shi'ite Islamist militias backed by Iran have deployed from across the region to help Assad against rebels, many of whom identified themselves as Sunni Islamists. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Opposition sources said officials from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition spearheaded by Syria's former al-Qaeda offshoot, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards had negotiated the latest swap.

Under the deal, the evacuees will include Alawite hostages that insurgent factions took when they overran Idlib more than three years ago, the pro-Assad commander said.

The commander and an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret talks said separately that Turkey was also involved in the process, which builds on a deal from last year that had not been fully implemented.

The opposition source said that more than 1,500 civilian and rebel prisoners would be released by the regime.

The deal also includes the release of 34 prisoners captured by Hezbollah during its siege of the former rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani.

State TV said at least 88 buses had entered al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province so far on Wednesday, along with Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) ambulances for sick residents.

Iran, which backs Assad against the mainly Sunni insurgents and has expanded its military role in Syria, has long taken an interest in the fate of its co-religionists in the two towns.

It has arranged dozens of air lifts of food and equipment to circumvent the rebel siege of the two towns.

In April 2017, thousands of people in the two Shi'ite towns were evacuated to government-held areas in a swap that in exchange freed hundreds of Sunnis living in Madaya and Zabadani who were then besieged by Hezbollah.

But the evacuation of the remaining 7,000 people in al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the release of 1,500 detainees prisoners never went through.

The resumption of talks now to complete the deal was to ward off a possible military campaign by the Syrian army and Iranian backed militias to end the siege of the two Shi'ite towns, another opposition source said.