The United Nation's Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced Thursday that it had found “incontrovertible proof” that the Syrian government used “sarin or a sarin-like substance” in a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun earlier this month. The crisis that attack provoked, and the American response—scores of Tomahawk missiles blasting a Syrian airbase—drew the world’s attention. U.S. President Donald Trump made it clear he’d been moved, not least, by the photographs of “beautiful babies” dying horrible deaths after exposure to sarin.
But the war continues, and there are other policies pushed by Assad’s government that need to be examined closely. The Syrian regime and its allies are continuing to carry out what they call their “reconciliation and evacuation” policy across Syria's besieged areas.
Begun last year, the strategy so far has managed to return many of the formerly opposition-held, besieged, suburbs of rural Damascus and Homs to government control, while consolidating opposition forces and supporters in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.
But the “reconciliation” part of this program is, to say the least, problematic. It is championed by the Syrian regime, and Russian forces, as the best option for stability in the country, while the opposition and human rights organizations see it as forced displacement, which is itself a war crime.
The latest chapter in the process continued Friday morning, as a group of buses evacuating several hundred residents from what have come to be called Syria’s “four towns” finally reached their destination.
The buses held people from the pro-opposition areas of Zabadani and Madaya located north-west of Damascus, on the one hand, and the Shia villages of Foua and Kafraya, which were sympathetic to the Assad government, but located in the rebel-held north-east of the country.
They had been stuck for two days, leaving evacuees sitting in the same locations where, last Saturday, a suicide bomber attacked the first convoys.
The most recent batch of buses holds more than 500 people from Zabadani, Madaya, and Wadi Barada, and 3,000 residents from Foua and Kafraya, and reportedly were waiting for the release of 750 detainees, held by the government of Syria, before they could cross to their final destinations. The residents of Zabadani wrote goodbyes on the town’s walls as they boarded the buses, one read: “"Cry, Zabadani, and I will return to wipe your tears.”
An additional group of buses yesterday brought 131 people from Aleppo to Turkey, including 37 of the injured from Saturday night’s deadly truck bomb attack on buses holding residents of Foua, which claimed the lives of over 120 people, including at least 80 children, and injured more than 300 more.
While this group of buses will see Zabadani emptied of residents, most of Madaya’s residents have remained in their homes, after agreeing to a so-called reconciliation agreement with the government of Syria.
The evacuation, or forced displacement, of people from across Syria in reconciliation agreements began in August 2016 with the full evacuation of the Damascene suburb of Darayya, and has continued apace since—the largest and most publicized example being eastern Aleppo city, and the most recent the ongoing evacuation of al-Waer.
Unpicking the intertwined layers of the “four towns” arrangement, which has tied the fates of four besieged communities together since 2015, involved one of the most complicated deals in the Syrian war’s history.
With the predominantly pro-opposition areas of Madaya and Zabadani besieged by Hezbollah, the government of Syria, and their allies, and the Shia enclaves of Foua and Kafraya besieged by al-Qaeda-inspired Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the four have been linked in a tit-for-tat deal which means aid deliveries and medical evacuations must be matched by aid or evacuations to or from the other.
The “four towns” trade-offs have resulted in desperate conditions, as the military groups exert pressure on each other, punishing innocent civilians in each of the areas.
In January 2016, the UN visited besieged Madaya and found civilians starving, after being cut off from food aid, and in recent months, reports of Hezbollah forces sniping residents have increased. A UN convoy that reached the four towns in March reported that “sniping activities and shelling increased heavily in the last three months” and in Zabadani observed that “adult males observed during the mission were gaunt and thin.”
Despite tying an evacuation from Foua, Kafraya, Zabadani and Madaya to the east Aleppo evacuation in December, only a small number of residents of Foua and Kafraya managed to leave their area.
Ongoing negotiations since then have seen several false starts. Then, a week ago, what seemed a solid deal finally was reached. The details were initially hard to come by, save the fact it had been brokered directly by Qatar and Iran, rather than the Russian military and Syrian Government, who normally play a leading role in reconciliation negotiations.
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When the terms of the agreement finally emerged they had all the makings of a high-drama spy novel; they involved large cash payments thought to have been flown into Baghdad on private planes, and the release of 26 Qatari royals who have been held in Iraq since December 2015 after going missing on a falconry hunt.
The execution of the deal played out like a carefully choreographed chess game, each piece dependent on the next to move. Since the time the now-infamous green buses arrived in the four towns early last week, there have been excruciating delays at every step of the process.
On Friday those people leaving Madaya, Foua, and Kafraya, boarded buses for the first phase of the evacuation. After many hours, the buses reached Ramousah and Rashideen near Aleppo early on Saturday, and then, after more than eight hours of waiting, tragedy struck when the suicide bomber hit the Foua buses in one of the most deadly single incidents of the conflict, with scores of children, of “beautiful babies,” if you will, among the dead.
It seemed certain the deal would implode and in panicked phone calls the people of Madaya, trapped on the buses and fearing a reprisal attack, asked frantically for help. In a call to The Daily Beast, a resident of Madaya said: “There is something happened now, a car has exploded where the buses of Foua and Kafraya are, and there are a lot of dead people and there is a lot of fear the regime will react against our buses.”
On both sides, help came from unlikely sources. The injured and dead of Foua were treated by the White Helmets and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) who worked side by side with pro-opposition journalists and civilians to rescue the wounded, the many children. The Madaya buses were surrounded by Russian military and escorted to the crossing point, to ward off attacks.
By early Sunday morning, the buses arrived in their respective destinations.
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If today’s convoys arrive safely, the deal will pause before resuming again in June for its final phase.
If completed, it will displace 30,000 people from their homes, probably permanently. Zabadani is empty of residents, and by the end of the June phase, Foua and Kafraya will be, too.
Security guarantees for those remaining in Madaya under the reconciliation are slim. One resident told The Daily Beast, “The situation is so bad, the army came to Madaya and took everything in the hospitals—drugs medicines, tools, equipment, everything—and they went to the houses of people who are wanted by them and took everything in their houses.” Video posted on social media from Madaya showed Government of Syria forces in the town, and lines of local men who appeared to be being conscripted into the military.
Both the government of Syria and Russia see reconciliation agreements as the preferred resolution to the conflict, as they remove hostile actors to one limited area, allowing the government to re-exert control over what had been pro-opposition territory within central Syria. According to state media this week, “Presidential Political and Media Advisor Bouthaina Shaaban reiterated that the local reconciliations taking place throughout the country without foreign interference are the best way to restore security and stability to Syria.”
For foreign powers, and negotiators, the reconciliations bring may mean less killing and the possibility to begin to talk about reconstruction. A reduction in violence, particularly at a localized level, has been the low bar for success set across the country since the UN’s Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura posited it in November 2014.
However, reconciliations are failing to deliver stability, or even substantial improvements in circumstance for many of those living in reconciled areas across rural Damascus and Homs. Far from being a solution to the problem’s of the besieged areas, the agreements have brought with them a new set of problems, which are likely to play out in Madaya as well.
In eastern Aleppo, widespread looting has been reported since the area was evacuated in December 2016, following a pattern observed in other “reconciled” areas. Forced conscription and arrests are also pressing issues across these areas, with many fighting-aged males living in besieged areas doing so to avoid mandatory military service. In some areas locals have been told that all men between 18 and 42 must join the military or the police.
In Moadamiyeh, which reconciled in September last year, residents told The Daily Beast that there has only been one garbage collection since the evacuations took place and the area returned to the jurisdiction of the government of Syria. In Wadi Barada, which evacuated in December, a recent UN visit found that there were no doctors working in the clinics, and almost all medicines were removed from the convoy of humanitarian aid that was delivered, an action often used by the government of Syria to inflict pain on besieged communities, but used against reconciled areas as well.
Even services that are tied to government ministries that work closely with the United Nations hub in Damascus, like the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, have not improved. Hospital and clinics remain unrepaired, and schools still suffering from physical destruction in most reconciled areas. While access has improved in some areas, with roads opening to allow some movement of people and goods, many men remain scared of arrest or conscription and remain in hiding.
In an early, positive, move, a SARC convoy consisting of 21 trucks of humanitarian aid reached Madaya on Thursday. While the US policy on Syria outside of the fight against ISIS continues to develop, it’s possible the situation for those in reconciled areas will continue to improve, but for the civilians of Madaya, and the remaining residents in Foua and Kafraya waiting for the June phase of the evacuation plan, there are no guarantees, and no easy answers.