A suicide attack outside of Aleppo last Saturday killed 126 evacuees in a caravan of buses leaving rebel-sieged towns in northern Syria. A U.K.-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, marked the Al-Rashedin area bombing by an explosives-laden truck as the deadliest such attack in nearly a year of war in Syria. Those killed were primarily Shi’ite residents of the Al-Foua and Kefraya towns who were being relocated to areas of Aleppo under government control. The attack occurred during the first week of evacuations stipulated under an exchange agreement principally brokered by Qatar and Iran, casting doubts over the effectiveness of the deal and the motives behind it. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The evacuation was the first phase of a citizen swap deal negotiated in March by Qatar, a longtime supporter of the rebels, including the Nusra Front, and Iran, a formidable patron of Assad and Hezbollah. Interestingly, the Assad regime had minimal involvement in the negotiations. Under the exchange deal – scheduled to relocate 30,000 people over a 60-day period – the Syrian government would allow residents to vacate Madaya and Zabadani in the south, while the rebels would transport pro-regime, predominantly Shia residents from the northern towns of Al-Foua and Kefraya to government-held territory. Although the Syrian government was only minimally involved in the negotiations, they have previously supported such deals under the premise that they allow “services to be restored” to destroyed rebel-held towns. While some evacuees in the besieged areas feel there is no end to the violence in sight and simply want out of the rebel-held areas, many who oppose Assad believe the move allows the regime to dispel its opponents through “forced demographic change” along sectarian lines as a majority of the opposition is comprised of Sunni Muslims.
Perhaps one of the more interesting elements of the agreement was the involvement of Qatar in the negotiations. Qatar has made repeated attempts to exert its influence in Syria through the sponsorship of rebels fighting against the Assad regime, including the Nusra Front – now known as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham. The small Gulf country has also adopted non-military efforts such as building schools in the war-stricken country in hope of gaining influence over young Syrians. The swap negotiation may be considered the latest installment in Doha’s futile efforts to revive its regional relevance and get back in the game in Syria.
On the contrary, Iran’s involvement is less surprising as the country has strategically planted itself in the Syrian arena for some time. The historic alliance between Iran and Syria dates back to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the country has spent billions of dollars over the years bolstering the Assad regime through military training, security services and intelligence support. Tehran’s solid backing for the regime and Hezbollah, who seem to have the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, make it unlikely for Tehran to lose significant clout in the region anytime soon.
The Qatar-Iran partnership on this deal was unexpected, Middle East news outlet Al-Monitor concluded, especially given the noticeable absence of Russia and Turkey, key Syria players and primary facilitators of the ongoing Astana peace talks, along with Iran, where Qatar does not have a spot at the negotiating table. On Wednesday, state media announced that the evacuations have since resumed, but last weekend’s attacks have certainly compromised the effectiveness of the reciprocal deal.