After 2 months of reprieve, regime bombards rebel-held Homs district without explanation

AMMAN: A regime assault on the last rebel-controlled district of Homs city continued for the third consecutive day on Thursday, local sources told Syria Direct, undermining an existing ceasefire and shattering more than two months of calm.

The regime’s ongoing air and ground campaign against Waer is “tit for tat retaliation” for reported sniper fire coming from inside the rebel-held district, pro-regime media outlet Al-Masdar News reported on Wednesday. Even if true, the retaliation appears to be punitive, arbitrarily targeting civilians in the densely populated district with airstrikes and ground fire. Syrian state media outlet SANA has not directly reported on any Waer attacks.

Pro-opposition media rejected the sniper claims, reporting “absolutely no truth to them whatsoever.”

“This was just a pretext for [the regime] to bomb the district as they always do,” pro-opposition news outlet Waer 24 reported on Wednesday. “Every single place that they’ve targeted so far has been residential.”

Two explosive gas cylinders hit the densely crowded district of Waer on Thursday, killing one local resident, pro-opposition sources told Syria Direct. The reported cylinder attacks come one day after pro-regime forces battered the 4 sq. km district—home to an estimated 50,000 people—with airstrikes, mortars and heavy machine gunfire. Scores of civilians were injured, with multiple reported cases of amputation due to a shortage of proper medicine in the encircled district.

 Civil Defense responds to Wednesday bombings in Waer. Photo courtesy of the Homs Civil Defense.

Syrian state media outlet SANA reported that “an explosive device planted by terrorists” killed three residents and injured two others in the regime-held a-Zahraa district of Homs city on Thursday. 

The regime’s three-day bombardment of Waer represents the deadliest flare-up of violence in the western Homs suburb since the signing of the nationwide ceasefire in December.

Pro-regime forces and allied militias have not attempted to storm the district since the bombing started on Wednesday. Residents inside Waer, however, describe the scene as one of “sheer fear.”

Residents “sprinted to the bomb shelters” on Thursday when two explosive cooking-gas cylinders slammed into the district around 3pm local time, Jalal Talawi, a correspondent with SMART News, told Syria Direct from inside Waer on Thursday. “Families are burying the dead at night out of fear that bombing could start up at any given time during the day.”

Up to 13 Waer residents have died since bombing began on Tuesday; however, with scores packed in the neighborhood’s emergency rooms—some in critical condition—the death toll “is likely to go up,” Mohammad Abu Hamza, a spokesman with the Civil Defense in Waer, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

Waer is the only remaining rebel holdout district in Homs city since opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of a wide-ranging truce across the provincial capital in May 2014. Since late 2015, rebel and regime negotiators have met to discuss surrender, but the talks remain unproductive.

In August, Waer rebels agreed to leave the district in exchange for the release of more than 7,300 detainees held by the regime. More than 600 rebel fighters and their families left to the north Homs countryside since the August agreement, but the Assad regime has only released 194 of the detainees.

Negotiations fell apart last November when a month-long wave of regime attacks killed more than 20 residents and injured at least 150 others in Waer before Russian negotiators first joined the talks, Syria Direct reported.

 Day-long bombardment of Waer on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of SRG_Syria.

As of Thursday, communication between the opposition’s Waer negotiating committee and the regime “has not been cut off,” a Waer negotiator who requested anonymity told Syria Direct. “When it comes to the negotiations, the regime is willing to allow the bombing to end and aid to get in, but is not willing to give the opposition any more than that.”

The issue of prisoner release has long been a sticking point in the Waer truce talks. An earlier round of negotiations fell apart last March amid opposition accusations that the regime reneged on its promise to release detainees, Syria Direct reported.

“Ultimately, I believe that the regime will try to sidestep any international agreement and just set out to impose its own terms,” said the rebel negotiator.

On Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad told Belgian reporters in Damascus that the nationwide December ceasefire signed in Ankara is “not dead.”

“It’s natural in every ceasefire anywhere in the world, in every war, in any conflict, to have these breaches.”

For residents in Waer, the regime’s bombing campaign came “incredibly suddenly,” following more than two months of relative calm. Adnan Khalil, 30, lost his young daughter on Wednesday when his house was hit with a surface-to-surface missile. His wife is in critical condition.

“I’m still in a state of shock,” Khalil told Syria Direct. “I can’t believe what has happened to this district.”

“What did my wife ever do to deserve this? What did my daughter ever do? What did they do to deserve this fate?”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.

Ahmad Yassin

Originally from Daraa, Ahmed left Syria in 2013 due to the worsening security situation. He joined Syria Direct to learn journalism and use it help his community.

Abdulmoen al-Hassan

Abdulmoen studied Social Work at the German Jordanian University in Madaba, Jordan through a DAAD scholarship. Abdulmoen wishes to learn how to cover humanitarian stories about Syria.