|Welcome to our weekly summary of Syria Deeply’s top coverage of the crisis in Syria.
Four Towns Evacuation: Evacuations of civilians and fighters from Madaya, Zabadani, Fou’a and Kafraya was underway on Friday after several delays this week.
Iran and Qatar brokered the evacuation agreement, which allows safe passage for civilians and rebel fighters from Zabadani and Madaya, two rebel-held towns outside the capital that are being besieged by the government, to Idlib province. Under the terms of the deal, safe passage would also be granted to civilians and pro-government fighters from Fou’a and Kafraya, two government-held towns in Idlib that are under siege from rebels, to regime-controlled areas of Aleppo.
Evacuations began over the weekend but were stalled on Saturday when a bomb blast hit buses carrying evacuees from Fou’a and Kafraya, killing at least 126 people, including at least 60 children. No group has claimed responsibility.
Evacuations briefly resumed on Wednesday: some 3,000 people left Fou’a and Kafraya, and an 11-bus convoy left Zabadani. However, the process was then put on hold for 48 hours – until Friday – when rebel forces demanded the release of 750 prisoners in government custody. It is not yet clear if the prisoners have been released but the government has released the prisoners, but the convoys began to move again on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Chemical Weapons: Results from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tests and analyses show “incontrovertible” evidence that that Sarin gas or a similar agent was used in the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month. Initial findings are the result of an analysis of bio-medical samples from the autopsies of three victims and from seven people being treated in hospitals.
Speaking at a press conference in Israel on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said he could “say authoritatively” that the Syrian government “retained” some chemical weapons. He added that “it’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically.”
In a press briefing with Israeli reports on Wednesday, a senior Israeli military officer said the Syrian government still possessed “a few tonnes of chemical weapons,” according to Reuters. The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons.
Relocated Warplanes: The U.S. said the Syrian government recently moved its warplanes from the Shayrat Airbase to a Russian base in Latakia. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed this on Friday, saying that the Syrian government has “dispersed their aircraft, no doubt. They have dispersed their aircraft in recent days.”
Two weeks ago, the U.S. launched 59 cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by the regime in Idlib. A U.S. official told ABC News that the recent move was part of a tactical strategy to protect Syrian aircraft from future U.S. strikes.