Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Bashar al-Assad’s regime are conducting another swap of prisoners and civilians. The exchange centers on residents of Kefraya and al-Fouah, two predominately Shiite towns in the northern province of Idlib.
HTS, which evolved out of Al Nusrah Front, reported the terms of the exchange via its Ebaa News Agency. According to HTS, 1,500 prisoners held by Assad and his allies are being released. In exchange, Shiite militiamen must leave the towns and residents are allowed to evacuate as well.
HTS has posted a series of photos and videos from the evacuations of Kefraya and al-Fouah. Some of these images can be seen below.
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), an Assad regime propaganda arm, reported that 121 buses and a number of ambulances had entered the towns in order to relocate their residents. Al Masdar News, a pro-regime outlet, added that upwards of “7000 people, including civilians and fighters,” were being evacuated under the terms of the deal, which was “brokered” by Turkey and Iran.
The Idlib province was overrun by the Jaysh al-Fath coalition, led by Al Nusrah Front and its closest allies, in early 2015. Sunni jihadists and Islamists have long sought to link the fate of residents and fighters in Kefraya and al-Fouah to the fortunes of their imprisoned or surrounded comrades elsewhere in Syria. In Sept. 2015, for instance, Sunni jihadists assaulted the towns in response to Assad’s and Iran’s advances on Zabadani, a small city in southwestern Syria near the Lebanese border.
This is not the first time that a swap has been carried out. The deal struck this week is similar to an arrangement negotiated in Apr. 2017, when HTS and the Syrian regime swapped residents of the two towns for prisoners held in southern Syria. HTS advertised the exchange on its social media pages, just as it is broadcasting today’s exchange. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Qatar’s ill-timed hostage deal increases pressure on Washington.]
HTS’s Telegram channel announced on Apr. 21, 2017 that the “first phase” of the prisoner swap with the “Iranian enemy” had been completed. Ebaa News Agency, the propaganda arm for HTS, reported that 15 “buses carrying 500 mujahideen from al-Zabadani, Serghaya, and Damascus’s eastern mountain” had “arrived with their families,” while “46 buses carrying the residents and militants of Kefraya and al-Foua went toward areas of regime control.” Ebaa added that the swap deal involved “more than 1500 prisoners” held by Bashar al Assad’s “criminal regime,” and “the introduction of food and medical aid in the besieged areas” near Damascus.
Interestingly, the same number of prisoners are part of today’s exchange.
Similar to last April, HTS’s Ebaa News Agency has provided updates on the latest swap during the last 24 hours.
Screenshots from an HTS video of the buses entering Kefraya and al-Fouah earlier today: