The deal known as “the four town agreement,” the result of negotiations between warring factions and their allies in Syria’s six-year conflict, can be seen as a humanitarian solution and a war crime, depending on which angel it is seen from. As it is obvious from its name, the deal involves four towns: Zabadani and Madaya in the south west and Kefraya and Foah in the north.
The first two, predominantly Sunni, are besieged by Assad and Hezbollah forces since June 2015 and the second two, predominantly Shiite, are besieged by Islamist opposition forces since March 2015. The two pairs of towns are to be evacuated in parallel so that Sunnis will move rebel-held regions in the north, particularly around Idlib, and Shiites will move to regime held regions in the south west, particularly around Damascus. So, while the deal can be seen as a way of saving more than 64,000 trapped civilians who face death and hunger every day, it is arguably an attempt by the Syrian regime to alter the sectarian makeup of the country.
Journalist Turki Mustafa argues that the agreement is a flagrant attempt at turning the Syrian revolution into an explicit sectarian war. According to Mustafa, the story of Kefraya and Foah goes back to the first year of the revolution when the Syrian regime created of them military strongholds controlled by militias from Lebanon and Iraq and managed by Iran. “Those militias played a major role in mobilizing the residents of the two towns to become regime loyalists and to engage in armed conflicts with surrounding Sunnis under the pretext that they are all terrorists and affiliated to ISIS,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, Iran ordered Hezbollah to besiege Zabadani and Madaya in order to put pressure on its Sunni population.” Turki argues that this is not the first time that the Shiite camp imposed a demographic, sectarian-based change through besieging and starving civilians followed by forced evacuations. “This happened before in Barada Valley, Western Qalamun, and Western Ghouta.”
Journalist Hussein Abdul Aziz argued that one of the direct results of the agreement is changing the sectarian identity of the Syrian-Lebanese border from Zabadani in the south to al-Qusayr to the north. “It is not a coincidence that residents if Kefraya and Foah will be reportedly transferred to al-Qusayr, which is across the border from the predominantly Shiite city of Hermel in Lebanon,” he wrote.
“Obviously, Iran and Hezbollah agreed on making sure the border is dominated by Shiites, which also weakens Lebanese Sunnis in the city of Akkar and who are considered a historical extension of their Syrian counterparts in Homs.” According to Abdul Aziz, it won’t matter which part of the border is inhabited by Syrian or Lebanese citizens, since the criteria will be mainly sectarian. “They just have to be Shiites so that Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime can make sure they are in control.”
Rights activist Alaa Asaad, who is a Madaya local, said that while he is aware of the drawbacks of the agreement, he does not see an alternative. “This is the only way to end this humanitarian disaster before more people die and this what Madaya residents believe,” he said. “People here are starved, diseases are spreading, and there’s no medicine.
The people of Zabadani share the same feelings and want this to end,” he said. In response to criticism of the agreement by several opposition factions in Madaya and Zabadani and the possibility of intervention to stop the implementation of the agreement, Asaad said that the consequences will be grave for all four towns. “We should not forget that Iranians link progress in Madaya and Zabadani with that in Kefraya and Foah.” Asaad was mainly referring to statement issued by the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee, the National Coalition, and the Free Syrian Army and which condemned the agreement as submission to Iran’s plan at altering the sectarian structure of the country in accordance with its political interests.
Political analysis Khalil al-Mekdad said that the evacuation of the four cities serves a sectarian agenda, yet objected to criticism leveled against residents of the four cities because they agreed to leave. “There had no choice after Assad and his allies took control of liberated areas in Rif Dimashq and cut off supplies to several towns,” he wrote. For Mekdad, opposition factions such as the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee and the National Coalition and armed groups from Rif Homs in the north to Deraa in the south are to be held accountable. “They all fell prey to international interventions that eventually enabled Assad and his allies to gain more ground.” Mekdad argued that Iran is the real beneficiary of the deal since it is in its best interest to evacuate the Shiites in Kefraya and Foah.
“Most residents in the two towns are trained militants that fight on Assad’s side so having them besieged is a huge loss for the Assad-Iran camp.” On the other hand, Mekdad added, the Sunni opposition lost an important bargaining chip when it gave up those two towns and the Assad camp might now start targeting it in Idlib. “The other problem is that it is still not known for sure where all the Shiite militias of Kefraya and Foah will move, but if they settle in the Barada Valley, for example, it will be a disaster and they will be impossible to uproot later.”