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More Than 7,000 People Evacuated From 4 Besieged Syrian Towns
By Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- After nearly two years of punishing siege and bombardment by their enemies, more than 7,000 people were bused out of four towns in Syria on Friday in the most recent population transfer during six years of war.

The evacuations of civilians and fighters highlighted the prevalence of siege warfare in Syria and the extent to which prolonged violence has altered the human fabric of communities across the country.

As President Bashar al-Assad has fought to crush a rebel movement seeking his ouster, his forces have frequently surrounded rebel communities and blocked aid deliveries and trade as a way to impose hunger and force surrender. Where they can, rebels have done the same.

Many of those squeezed from their communities do not expect to return, joining the half of Syria's prewar population of 22 million that has been displaced by the war. Five million of those have become refugees in neighboring countries, Europe and elsewhere.

"The world, Europe and the Middle East can expect more refugees, and nobody wants that," said Valerie Szybala, the executive director of The Syria Institute, adding that using encirclement to force people from their homes also risked sowing the seeds of future conflicts.

Continue reading the main story "In some ways, it means that this conflict will never be over," she said. "It is creating a permanent rationale for conflict and creating schisms that are not going to be easy to heal."

According to Siege Watch, a project run by The Syria Institute and the Dutch organization PAX, more than 900,000 Syrians are living under siege in 37 areas across the country and more than a million more are under threat of siege.

In his quest to subdue rebellious communities, Mr. Assad has blockaded rebels along with civilians, forcing them to agree either to leave or to surrender their arms and reconcile with his government.

Such tactics, often accompanied by bombardment, have helped Mr. Assad regain control of a number of communities near the capital, Damascus, as well parts of the cities of Homs and Aleppo.

Critics say the strategy equals forced population transfer, which can be a war crime. An inquiry by the United Nations said that the evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo last year amounted to a war crime because it was coerced by Russian and Syrian military action. More than 20,000 people were transported out of the city before Mr. Assad forces consolidated their control.

"It is no surprise to the government that if you block aid deliveries and continue airstrikes, people are going to eventually surrender and withdraw," said Lama Fakih, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division for Human Rights Watch, adding that displacing people separates them from their livelihoods and fractures their social networks.

"People are literally being uprooted along with everything that comes with that," she said.

Friday's evacuations concerned four towns. Fua and Kefarya, two Shiite communities in Idlib Province loyal to Mr. Assad, have been surrounded by hard-line Sunni insurgents for about two years. Madaya and Zabadani, two mostly Sunni towns near Syria's western border with Lebanon, are surrounded by Syrian government forces and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

About 5,000 residents were removed from the Shiite villages on Friday and 3,000 more were to be taken out by day's end, according to Firas Amoura, who helped coordinate the evacuation on behalf of the Syrian government. More than 2,200 people were bused out of Madaya and about 150 rebel fighters were waiting to removed from Zabadani.

The evacuations were brokered by the Syrian government and Iran on one side and Qatar, representing the rebels, on the other, and carried out by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The United Nations did not play a role.

The people who left the Shiite villages were taken to Aleppo. Buses departing the rebel-held towns headed for Idlib Province.

Leaving home was bitter for many, but came after a long period of deprivation.

"Everybody wants to leave," Medhi Kirbash, a resident of one of the Shiite towns said while waiting to board a bus. "We hated even the clothes we have been wearing for the past two years of siege."

As the departures proceeded, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran warned the United States against any further attacks on the Assad forces, and called for an international investigation of the chemical weapons attack in Idlib that killed more than 80 people, according to The Associated Press.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who hosted his Syrian and Iranian counterparts, Walid al-Moallem and Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Moscow, denounced last week's American missile strike as a "flagrant violation" of international law. American officials said the strike was in response to the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.

The evacuations on Thursday appeared to clear the way for permanent population shifts.

Mr. Amoura said that thousands of people would remain in the two Shiite villages. But others involved in the process doubted whether the communities would survive in the long term. That would leave no Shiite communities in Idlib Province.

Most of the tens of thousands of people in Madaya were expected to remain when the Syrian government retook the town. But only about 150 fighters remained in Zabadani, and all were expected to leave, depopulating the town.

For one of those fighters, Qassem al-Qawayfi, the siege had made his hometown unlivable as many of his fellow fighters were killed and food became scarce.

"Nobody is happy to leave the town where he was born and raised, but it has become misery here," he said through WhatsApp, a messaging application. "People have become skeletons."


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