Blockaded north Homs countryside joins Russian-backed de-escalation zones

AMMAN: A Russian-backed ceasefire agreement between rebels and Damascus went into effect in the regime-encircled north Homs countryside on Thursday after years of bombings and blockade, local sources told Syria Direct.

Representatives of the Russian Ministry of Defense met with “moderate Syrian opposition” negotiators in Cairo in recent days to finalize a ceasefire agreement, Russian state media reported on Thursday. Rebel negotiators officially signed onto the deal Wednesday evening.

The agreement, which began with a full ceasefire at midday on Thursday, makes north Homs the third de-escalation zone to be implemented in Syria under a Russian-led plan presented at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan this past May.

North Homs, a collection of cities, towns, villages and rural areas directly north of the regime-held provincial capital, was besieged by regime forces in stages between 2012 and 2014.

For years, an estimated 260,000 residents there have relied on aid deliveries, local agriculture and bribing surrounding checkpoint guards in order to survive.

Now, according to the terms of the latest ceasefire agreement—posted online by activists and described by opposition negotiator Khaled Zaini in voice messages provided to Syria Direct by a north Homs journalist—food, medicine and construction materials are due to begin entering the pocket starting on August 7.

The deal also stipulates the “immediate release” of detainees held by the Syrian regime and movement of residents into and out of the pocket. Rebels in north Homs will not be required to hand over any weaponry or evacuate to other parts of Syria. 

Similar “de-escalation zones” have already gone into effect in recent weeks in southwestern Syria and the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, despite reports of violations.

 A street in the north Homs town of Talbiseh. Photo courtesy of Mahmoud Taha/AFP.

In north Homs, residents are “pleased with the agreement,” Samer Sleiman, an activist from the Houleh area of the rebel pocket told Syria Direct on Thursday. “The siege has exhausted them in every way.”

The Homs-Hama highway, a section of which runs through the heart of the rebel pocket, will also be reportedly reopened as part of the agreement, connecting two regime-held provincial capitals.

Starting Friday, Russian military police and observers will be deployed at positions and checkpoints at the edges of the new “de-escalation zone,” Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement on Thursday.

A key point of contention in the establishment of Russia’s de-escalation zones in Syria has been the presence of fighters belonging to Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—an Al-Qaeda-linked rebel coalition led by a faction formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra.

HTS fighters are present in northern Homs, though the pocket is primarily held by Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated brigades. One resident with whom Syria Direct spoke estimated that HTS has approximately 1,000 fighters in the area, most stationed in the eastern periphery of the blockaded area.

Russia has been clear that the latest ceasefire agreements do not apply to HTS, which it refers to as Jabhat al-Nusra. In Konashenkov’s Thursday statement on the ceasefire, the major general stressed that the de-escalation zone would not apply to the group and that the opposition had pledged to “expel all the units affiliated with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra from the areas of Homs under its control.” 

The final version of the agreement that was signed in Cairo by opposition negotiators on Wednesday night states that the Syrian regime and its allies would not strike “Jabhat a-Nusra” until September 10.

In the interim, civilian and military opposition authorities are to “drive out” HTS from the area included in the ceasefire agreement, which reportedly includes the entirety of the pocket. The exact boundaries have not yet been officially announced.

The final version of the agreement included a clause stipulating that the civilian and military opposition would “refuse” the ideology of IS and Nusra, negotiator Khaled Zaini said on Thursday.

Previous ceasefires—dating back to late February 2016—have brought only temporary relief to northern Homs. And as recently as July 31, regime airstrikes hit at least two towns in the pocket.

It remains to be seen if the latest ceasefire will be any different. However, two residents Syria Direct spoke to on Thursday said they believed that Russia’s prominent role made them hopeful that the Assad regime would stick to the deal.

“Everything depends on Russia,” Abu Khaled, a civilian from the north Homs town of a-Dar al-Kabirah told Syria Direct on Thursday. “If Russia wants the regime to abide by the agreement, then it will.”

“We’re so tired of the siege, the hunger, the bombing,” said Abu Khaled. “We just want a way out.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.