> These buses are waiting to evacuate thousands of fighters and residents from two villages in Syria, under a deal struck between rebels and the Syrian government. It's a common site in this conflict, but this time it's a bit different, and could also be a precursor to a new stage in the seven-year-old civil war as Reuters' Tom Perry in Beirut explains.
>> Population transfers have become a common feature of the Syrian war. For the most part, it has been opponents of President Bashar al-Assad who have paid the price. Being forced out of areas including Homs, Aleppo, and most recently the city of Daraa in Southern Syria. These latest evacuations, however, break the recent pattern.
That's because these villages are pro-government and located in an area that is otherwise controlled by rebels, the North Western province of Idlib. The timing of this evacuation, with Assad close to finishing off rebels in another part of the country has fueled speculation that Idlib could be next.>> Under the deal, 7,000 residents and pro-government fighters will be evacuated to government controlled territory.
The Syrian government is also expected to release hundreds of prisoners. The rebel siege here sits in sharp contrast with the bombardment carried out by the Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, in the Southwest. And if Assad takes complete control there his focus is likely to shift North.
>> The next phase of the war will be defined by a struggle for two main blocks of territory. The first is the Northwest, this is in rebel hands but there the presence of the Turkish military will complicate things for Assad. The second is the Northeast and the East, this is in the hands of Kurdish-led militia.
There, the presence of US forces will also complicate things for Assad. As Assad presses for military victory, the prospects of the UN-backed peace settlement for Syria have never seemed more bleak.