O n the scene black smoke rose to the sky amidst burned out cars and buses meant to transport hundreds into a new future after warring sides had agreed on an evacuation deal. A suicide bomber had reportedly detonated a van full of explosives, killing at least 120 people, many of them children. The evacuees were from the mostly Shia towns of Fua and Kefraya, besieged for around two years by hardline Sunni Islamist groups.
Syrian state media blamed “terrorists”, a catch-all term for all opposed to the regime, of having carried out the attack on the outskirts of Aleppo. No group has so far claimed responsibility, while various rebel groups condemned the attack.
The evacuation process was part of the so-called “four towns” deal, in which residents of two other towns - Madaya and Zabadani, besieged by pro-government forces - are transported to northern Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province.
The evacuation deal, brought about with the involvement of Iran and Qatar, also had an international dimension. Sources told the Guardian that the fate of a kidnapped falcon hunting party in Iraq, including members of the Qatari royal family, was tied to the negotiations over the Syrian towns. Two Qataris, reportedly held by an Iranian-backed group, were released last week as the Syrian deal was being finalised.
The opposition and human rights groups have long accused the Syrian government of using sieges as an instrument of war and implementing a deliberate displacement policy. Similar patterns have emerged over the years: pro-government forces attack and besiege opposition enclaves, forcing an agreement that sees the rebels either surrender or agree to vacate the area; government forces subsequently take control of the area, while those leaving often head for northern Syria’s Idlib province, which is routinely targeted by Russian and Syrian airstrikes. The government describes such agreement as reconciliation deals.
This practice goes back to the early days of the war when the regime laid siege on opposition areas in the western city of Homs. For many in the West, the brutal nature of such conditions came to the forefront when images of starved children emerged from Madaya, a former resort town near the Lebanese border.
As The World Weekly went to press, hundreds of evacuees from rebel- and government-held areas were still stuck in transit. Evacuation procedures had come to a halt after rebel forces had reportedly demanded the release of prisoners.