In July 2018, Islamist opposition factions seized control of the two Shia towns of Kafraya and Al-Fuaa in the north of Idlib after evacuating the remaining residents according to the “Four Towns Agreement.” Since then, there have been disputes and clashes between the controlling armed factions and displaced Sunni civilians, who have recently arrived in the towns, over who has the right to live in the homes left behind by displaced Shia civilians. The towns were divided into districts, which were allocated to each armed faction present.
The Four Towns Agreement was settled between representatives from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar Al-Sham, on one side, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, on the other, through Qatari mediation in Doha in April 2017. The agreement stipulated that residents of the Rural Damascus towns of Madaya and Zabadani, who had refused to reconcile with the regime, evacuate to northern Syria in exchange for the evacuation of residents from Kafraya and Al-Fuaa. All four towns had been under siege by various armed forces at the time. The agreement saw different stages and successive setbacks, as well as the addition of new areas and stipulations, before it was finally implemented in July 2018.
HTS controls more than half of the houses in Kafraya, while the other half is split between the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and Ansar Al-Tawhid. These homes are mostly inhabited by the families of armed faction members, and housing priority was granted to married members. HTS, Jaish Al-Ahrar, Failaq Al-Sham, Ahrar Al-Sham, and the Gathering of the Sons of Damascus share control of the neighboring Al-Fuaa. Each of these groups controls an entire section of the town, including the houses and shops.
Meanwhile, displaced civilians with no ties to the armed factions also live in these two towns and comprise more than half of the current population. Most of these people are displaced civilians from the towns of Madaya and Zabadani, as well as other parts of West Ghouta outside Damascus, and are in urgent need of housing. Often, they do not pay rent for their housing in Kafraya and Al-Fuaa.
In some cases, civilians displaced from other parts of Syria ended up renting homes in the districts of Kafaya and Al-Fuaa controlled by the armed factions. However, the housing needs of fighters have led to disputes with these displaced residents. Last September, TIP demanded that someone who had been displaced to Kafraya be evicted. All of TIP’s fighters are Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority group in China. Most of the fighters moved to Syria with their families in waves beginning in 2012. They are concentrated in the western countryside of the Idlib Governorate and the northern part of the Lattakia Governorate.
The person whom TIP wanted to evict was among the 15 families displaced to Kafraya from the town of Al-Latamna in the Hama Governorate. The dispute escalated when the tenant refused to leave his rented home, prompting HTS’ security forces, which are in charge of resolving such disputes, to intervene. They ruled in favor of TIP and forced all residents displaced from Al-Latamna to leave their rented homes in Kafraya, citing previous eviction warnings.
This dispute came after forces affiliated with Ahrar Al-Sham evicted a widow from the home she was inhabiting in Al-Fuaa in May 2020. The group then fired bullets into the air to disperse civilians who gathered to protest the eviction.