By Ammar Hamou and Avery Edelman
AMMAN: Dozens of buses and ambulances arrived in two besieged towns in northern Syria on Thursday as residents prepare for evacuation under an agreement between pro-government and opposition forces.
According to a local outlet in the towns of Kefraya and Foua in Syria’s northern Idlib province, 99 buses and 24 Syrian Red Crescent ambulances entered the area earlier today and are ready to begin evacuating residents.
Under the evacuation deal, which was reportedly brokered by Qatar at the end of March, Shiite populations in government-held Kefraya and Foua, located in northern Idlib province, will be evacuated to government-controlled areas of Damascus, Aleppo or Latakia.
In exchange, opposition fighters, their families and civilians who wish to leave rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani, neighboring towns northwest of Damascus, will be granted passage to opposition territory in northern Syria. A number of evacuation buses arrived to Madaya on Wednesday and to Zabadani Thursday, according to activists in the area who spoke with the Syrian Voice.
All four towns involved in the evacuations have been besieged since 2015; Madaya and Zabadani are surrounded by pro-government forces while Kefraya and Foua are encircled by the opposition.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the latest deal could involve the evacuation of as many as 30,000 people over a period of 60 days. The deal also includes a nine-month cease-fire in the areas involved and an exchange of more than 30 prisoners from both sides, which was overseen by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
In the first phase of the operation, 8,000 residents of Kefraya and Foua will be evacuated to Aleppo while 3,800 civilians and fighters in Madaya and Zabadani will depart for Idilb, according to Aljazeera.
Security measures delay evacuations
Evacuations under the deal were scheduled to begin on Wednesday but were delayed.
Abo Ali, an Ahrar al-Sham commander in Zabdani told the Syrian Voice that this delay was “a result of procedures [taking place] in the north, given the large number [of people] who will be departing. Inspecting and loading the buses will take time.”
He noted that tight security measures are necessary to complete the evacuation, especially considering “angry” reactions to the operations.
Local news outlet N.Z.F.K. also reported that a convoy of buses was “threatened” by “terrorist groups” on route to Kefraya and Foua, contributing to the delay.
Evacuations will leave Madaya with no medical staff
The evacuation of Madaya will mean an end to a crippling siege of the town, but it will also leave the area with no remaining medical staff.
Once the evacuations are complete, the medical association of Madaya and Zabdani and the Madaya civil defense force will suspend operations, as their staffs will be part of the departing groups.
According to Dr. Mohammad Darwish, a member of Madaya’s medical association, “the medical association staff will leave Madaya, as there is no protection [for them] here. The hospital where they worked will remain and the medications will be passed to a local committee until the regime enters [the area] and the hospital is returned to the relevant [government] authorities.”
Darwish said the medical association does not intend to “abandon” civilians, some of whom will choose to remain, but that they fear attacks. He nonetheless added that “if the agreement is implemented, and the regime sticks to it, then the area should not witness any attacks.”
The 40,000 residents of Madaya have suffered from inadequate medical care since the siege of the town began in 2015. Medical care to the town was provided at one field hospital run by a veterinarian assisted by two dentistry students, one of whom is Dr. Darwish.
Hassan Younis, a member of the Madaya Civil Defense, confirmed that most of the group’s members will also be leaving and that the civil defense center will cease operations after the government arrives.
Madaya civilians call evacuation “forced displacement”
Although the current agreement allows civilians in Madaya and Zabadani to stay in their current location if they choose, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) criticized the evacuation deal as a policy tool that is being used to redraw Syria’s demographic map.
SOHR director Rami Abdel Rahman called the move “demographic change on a sectarian basis” and noted that “there is great discontent over the agreement in Madaya.”
A Syrian Voice reporter in Madaya also says residents view the evacuations as “forced displacement.”
According to the reporter, who will be one of those departing under the evacuation, “the people [in Madaya] would not leave and abandon their land unless they had to.”
Darwish described the scene in the town prior to departure: “People are intoxicated with fear. The women’s tears are mixed with those of the men. There is no household here that will not suffer from this operation. No one knows what the path ahead holds.”