In a major development near Syria-Lebanon border, rebel fighters from the Jabhat al Fath al Shaam outfit were evacuated with their families and other refugees after Hezbollah launched an offensive in the region last month.
The militants from the former Nusra front were given safe passage near Arasal region, east of Lebanon, to retreat into Syria while many refugees joined them. According to reports, close to 8000 people – including the militants – are making their way back to Syria as a part of arrangement between the rebel fighters and Hezbollah.
A number of Hezbollah affiliates will also be freed as a part of the deal. Hezbollah captives, however, are expected to be released after buses carrying the militants and other civilians cross over Hama countryside making way towards Idlib.
Thousands of Syrians had taken refuge and were living in camps in Jaroud Arasal region. The rebels and others are being evacuated to north Syria’s Idlib province, also held by rebel outfits.
Lebanon based Hezbollah and Syrian forces launched an offensive against the former Al-Qaeda affiliates on July 21 in the Arasal area, a bastion of the Jabhat. The offensive also targeted the military posts, along Qalamoun Mountains, held by Islamic State (IS).
The evacuation was carried in areas under as well as outside the Hezbollah control. The offensive was aimed to prevent any further advance of the former Al-Qaeda associates. Jabhat was Al-Qaeda's official affiliate until it formally severed ties to with them last year. The group rebranded itself and currently spearheads the Tahrir al-Sham alliance. The alliance holds territory in the north of Syria is being engaged with the Syrian forces and Kurdish dominated YPG/SDF groups.
The rebels had briefly taken over the Arasal region in year 2014. Amid the fierce conflict, Hezbollah backed Bashar al Assad led Syrian regime ever since the armed revolt in the country began in 2011. Hezbollah is expected to continue its offensive against the IS strongholds in the hills of Arasal to flush out the militants and consolidate its control in the region.
As Jabhat fighters leave Arasal area for Idlib province, situation in North Syria is expected to stir up as rebel fighters join their allies here. Also, the internal feud between Ahrar-al-Sham, Jabhat’s rival group, installed a new group leader Hassan Soufan following the loss of territory in Idlib to Jabhat led Tahrir-al-Sham coalition.
Soufan is seen as someone with much better relations with the coalition unlike the former head. He supports the idea of “unification” of all Idlib-based militant groups under one command. This also seen as an attempt to revoke influence Turkey’s holds especially on Ahrar in the rebel held areas.