This frame grab from video provided by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows a Syrian soldier passes in front of buses carrying Syrian rebels and their families from Madaya an opposition-held town near Damascus, Syria, Friday, April 14, 2017. The Syrian government and rebels began a coordinated population transfer Friday of about 10,000 people from four towns besieged for years amid the country’s bloody, six-year civil war. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

Syria’s divisions crystallize with latest evacuations

Thousands of Syrians on the move

Syria’s divisions crystallize with latest evacuations

BEIRUT — Thousands of Syrians were bused out of their towns on Friday in the first stage of a widely criticized population transfer that reflects the relentless segregation of Syrian society along political and sectarian lines.

The co-ordinated evacuations delivered war-weary fighters and residents from two years of siege and hunger, but moved the country closer to a division of its national population by loyalty and sect.

As diplomacy in Moscow focused on the U.S. airstrikes targeting Syria, more than 2,350 people were bused out of the twin rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and another 5,000 from the pro-government towns of Foua and Kfraya in the country’s north.

“There was no heating, no food, nothing to sustain our lives. We left so that God willing (the siege) may ease on those who remain,” said Ahmad Afandar, a 19-year-old evacuee from Madaya whose parents stayed behind.

Madaya and Zabadani, once summer resorts to Damascus, have been shattered under the cruelty of government siege. The two towns rebelled against Damascus’ authority in 2011 when demonstrations swept through the country demanding the end of President Bashar Assad’s rule.

Residents were reduced to hunting rodents and eating the leaves off trees. Photos of children gaunt with hunger shocked the world and gave new urgency to U.N. relief operations in Syria.

Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars. They were supplied with food and medical supplies through military airdrops.

In a video posted on Facebook from one of the buses departing Madaya, a man identified as Hossam said: “We were forced to leave. We left our land, our parents, our memories, our childhood — everything.”

Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines. The United Nations is not supervising the evacuations.

The predominantly Shiite towns of Foua and Kfraya have remained loyal to the Syrian government while surrounding Idlib province has come under hard-line Sunni rebel rule. Their populations will now find security under the government’s outwardly secular authority.

Madaya and Zabadani, on the other hand, are believed to now be wholly inhabited by Sunnis, the consequence of six years of deft political manoeuvring by Assad to steer what started as a broad movement against his authority into a choice between him and Sunni Islamist rule.

Playing on fears of al-Qaida rule, Assad’s government showed leniency to the country’s Christian, Shiite and Alawite minorities while bringing the weight of its military against majority Sunni areas — especially Sunni pockets in demographically mixed areas, such as along the Lebanese border, where Madaya and Zabadani lie, and along the Mediterranean coast.

“They of course wanted to beat the Sunni rebels into submission,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “This has had the effect of driving them out.”

Since 2011, 5 million Syrians have been made refugees and another 7 million have been displaced within the country’s borders.

“The amount of population rearrangement has been tremendous in Syria,” said Landis. The latest evacuations are “a drop in the bucket.”

Madaya and Zabadani are the latest in a constellation of towns once held by the opposition around Damascus to submit to government rule. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said government forces entered Madaya after the evacuation Friday. Rebel gunmen were expected to leave Zabadani on Saturday.

Of the estimated 40,000 inhabitants of Madaya, some 2,000 elected to take the buses to rebel-held Idlib province rather than be subjected to the notorious government security services. They include former fighters, activists and medical workers, who have been targeted by the government with detention, torture and bombardment throughout the conflict.

“Honestly, when we left Madaya, I felt sadness, anger and sorrow. But now, on the road, I don’t feel anything. I feel cold as ice,” said Muhammad Darwish, a 27-year-old medical worker.

Zabadani, however, is to be depopulated. The town’s last 160 hold outs — all believed to be fighters or medical workers— will evacuate to Idlib on Saturday.

The fates of Fuoua and Kfraya are less clear. Most of the towns’ combined population of 26,000 will leave or have already left for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a government stronghold. But there were conflicting accounts of what will happen next.

According to Abdul Hakim Baghdadi, an interlocutor who helped negotiate the evacuations, government conscripts will stay and defend the towns. However, Yasser Abdelatif, a media official for the ultraconservative rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, said the two towns will be depopulated completely.

Friday’s evacuations were notable because they were reciprocal — seldom during the war has there been an organized population swap between rebels and the government.

But there have been other cases of expulsion of the government’s opponents to the country’s contested northern provinces. The government maintains it is offering its opponents amnesty and the right to stay in their homes, but its brutal military campaigns have already pushed tens of thousands of people into Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

In the last year alone, the government has uprooted residents and gunmen from the towns of Moadamiyeh, Hameh, Qudsaya, Darayya and the Barada Valley around the capital, as well as once rebellious neighbourhoods of Aleppo and Homs, Syria’s largest and third-largest cities, respectively.

Most of eastern Aleppo was depopulated through force, as well. A U.N. inquiry said the evacuation of east Aleppo amounted to a war crime because it was coerced through the joint Russian and Syrian government campaign against the city’s civilian infrastructure. More than 20,000 people were bused out of Aleppo at the end of last year, to rebel-held provinces in the northwest.

For the displaced, the war goes on. They face daily bombardment at the hands of the government’s air force in Idlib province.

“I have conviction that we will be back,” Hossam, the man from Madaya, said in the video.

Amer Burhan, the director of Zabadani’s field hospital, said he expects the gunmen among the evacuees to resume fighting government forces in northern Syria.

In Moscow, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran strongly warned the United States against launching new strikes on Syria, after it targeted an air base with a volley of missiles last week. The attack was in response to a chemical weapons attack on April 4 on a northern Syrian town that Washington blamed on Damascus. Almost 90 people were killed, including 27 children, according to the U.N.’s children’s agency, UNICEF.


Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.

Philip Issa, The Associated Press

Just Posted

Blackfalds firefighter battling cancer

A volunteer firefighter in Blackfalds for 15 years, Dave Sutherland now battling… Continue reading

Red Deer transit users are concerned about the future

But recreation centre users are glad facility hours were maintained

Community cardiac awareness dinner and show to be held

Continued focus to bring cardiac catheterization lab to Red Deer

Red Deer businesses react to 2.02 per cent tax increase for 2018

Chamber would prefer zero increase, while DBA thinks it’s reasonable

Bring on the rodeo says Red Deer County mayor

Canadian Finals Rodeo’s move to Red Deer good for whole region, says Red Deer County Mayor Jim Wood

WATCH news on the go: Replay Red Deer Jan. 21

Watch news highlights from Red Deer and Central Alberta

RDC chosen to host 2019 men’s volleyball national championship

Sports enthusiasts in Red Deer will have more to look forward to… Continue reading

Police is still looking for Second World War army passport owner

No one has claimed a rare Second World War German army passport… Continue reading

DJ Sabatoge and TR3 Band kick off Sylvan Lake’s Winterfest 2018

Central Alberta’s youngest DJ will open for TR3 Band kicking off Town… Continue reading

Two Canadians, two Americans abducted in Nigeria are freed

Kidnapping for ransom is common in Nigeria, especially on the Kaduna to Abuja highway

WATCH news on the go: Replay Red Deer Jan. 21

Watch news highlights from Red Deer and Central Alberta

Liberals quietly tap experts to write new paternity leave rules

Ideas include creating an entirely new leave benefit similar to one that exists in Quebec

Insurers say Canadian weather getting hotter, wetter and weirder

Average number of days with heavy rain or snow across Canada has been outside norm since spring 2013

Are you ready for some wrestling? WWE’s ‘Raw’ marks 25 years

WWE flagship show is set to mark its 25th anniversary on Monday

Most Read

Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month