"A punishing siege imposed by Islamist rebels has cut off these two sister towns in northwest Syria for the last 18 months, leaving them at the mercy of truck bombs, mortar barrages, and the terrifying staccato of sniper fire.
The two towns lie in Idlib province, a predominantly Sunni Muslim region southwest of Aleppo. In March 2015, the entire province was overrun by a powerful jihadist coalition known as the Army of Conquest. The exception was Fuah and Kefraya, two Shiite villages whose roughly 17,000 residents have remained, even under a devastating blockade, loyal to the government. For most, there has seemed to be little choice: Shiite Muslims are seen as apostates by Islamist hard-liners, and the Army of Conquest has threatened to wipe them out. “A massacre is inevitable — maybe not for everyone, but certainly for the young men. They are always sending them threats on walkie-talkies,” said Mohammad Hassan Taqi, head of the towns’ crisis committee. “But all the possibilities are there: killing, rape, imprisonment of some, to be used as bargaining chips with the government,” he said. The plight of these two Shiite towns says much about how Syria’s sectarian mosaic has been fractured since the onset of the war. In a country where Shiite and Sunni villages were once spread across the landscape in relative harmony, more and more Syrians are being uprooted into sectarian blocs, their borders becoming new fault lines in the greater Sunni-Shiite conflict. A key to the fate of Fuah and Kefraya — and one of the only things keeping the towns intact — is the Four Towns Agreement, a complex truce forged in September 2015 linking the fate of the two Shiite communities in Idlib province to that of Zabadani and Madaya, a pair of Sunni towns controlled by Syrian rebels near the capital, Damascus. Those towns have also been subjected to a relentless siege, in this case by pro-government forces, that has left residents on the verge of starvation."