Despite concerns, new north Homs truce promises relief after years-long blockade

AMMAN: A truce went into effect Monday in part of the blockaded northern Homs countryside, providing relief to encircled villages amidst fears of regime plans to exploit the agreement’s cessation of fighting stipulation to stamp out the last pocket of rebel resistance in nearby Homs city.

The truce, agreed to by the rebel Homs Sharia Court and regime representatives under Russian supervision, allows for the opening of two roads into the northern Homs countryside along with the free movement of goods and people to and from the area, a member of the committee that negotiated the agreement who requested anonymity told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

But the truce only applies to the southern territory within this blockaded pocket. Villages and towns in the north will benefit from the arrival of goods, but are not included under the ceasefire component, and therefore will still face regime aerial bombardment.

The agreement also permits students and government employees to leave the northern countryside to work in Homs city. On Monday, “the agreement went into effect and students were allowed to leave” the village of Dar al-Kabira for Homs city, the provincial capital, where they took their exams, the negotiating committee member said.

In return, local rebels are to avoid engaging regime forces, specifically troops moving along the Misyaf road, which connects Homs province to Tartus. The largest brigades in the area are Ahrar a-Sham, Jabhat a-Nusra, Feilaq Homs, Feilaq a-Sham and Jaish a-Tawheed.

Monday's truce agreement follows a month of negotiations in which a delegation with the Homs Sharia Court “would go to the Air Force Intelligence [building in Homs city] to discuss truce conditions under direct Russian supervision,” a relative of a Sharia Court member who requested anonymity told Syria Direct.

The Homs Sharia Court was established in early 2014. It includes judges from a mix of FSA-affiliated and Islamist rebel brigades. The court resolves conflicts between rebels, and adjudicates on civilian affairs in opposition-held areas. Jabhat a-Nusra, which has categorically opposed truce agreements across Syria, withdrew from the court in early 2015 and established its own.

While some residents and fighters welcome the agreement after two and a half years of encirclement, others fear that the regime will take advantage of the truce to launch a new military operation against Waer, the last rebel-held neighborhood in the provincial capital. Countryside rebels would be unable to open up a new front and lighten the pressure on Waer without reneging on the truce deal, says one local military commander who, like other sources for this report, requested full anonymity out of concern for possible repercussions by the Sharia Court.

In other words, the truce effectively neutralizes any outside resistance to the Syrian army conquering the last, stubborn holdout district of Waer, where truce talks have collapsed in recent weeks over the number of opposition prisoners to be released from regime prisons.

“The truce will freeze [rebel] brigades' activity in the Homs countryside, and their abiding by the agreement will prevent them from helping Waer during the regime's expected military campaign,” said the commander.

A member of Feilaq Homs agrees: “Military brigades are somewhat hesitant to agree to the truce, because they fear...that the regime is trying, through the agreement, to advance its temporary interests, including targeting Waer after [that neighborhood's] truce failed,” the source, who requested anonymity, told Syria Direct earlier this month. Feilaq has since signed on to the truce.

A UN-backed truce negotiated between rebel negotiators from the Waer neighborhood and the Syrian regime early in December promised to bring relief to the west Homs city district after being completely encircled by regime forces for more than two years.

But the Waer truce has stalled since “the regime still refuses to abide by the item that stipulates the release of prisoners,” a member of the Waer negotiating committee responsible for overseeing the opposition’s implementation of the truce told Syria Direct earlier this month.

“The regime bombs the neighborhood from time to time, and is now threatening military action” against Waer, Mohammed al-Homsi, member of the pro-opposition Homs Media Center, told Syria Direct early May.

Regime forces struck Waer with mortars on Monday, killing two people, reported the Homs Media Center.

Civilians in the far north Homs countryside want the benefits of a full ceasefire as their neighbors just to the south have agreed to, one resident told Syria Direct on Tuesday.  

“Civilians in villages such as Teir Maala and a-Dar al-Kabira [included in the truce] welcomed the agreement, because they hope for safety, but residents in Talbisa and Rastan [in the far north, where the truce is not in effect] were not included directly...they're upset,” north Homs resident Waleed al-Homsi told Syria Direct Tuesday.

Despite its shortcomings, the truce will enable residents “to secure some food to keep away famine,” a local military commander who requested anonymity told Syria Direct Tuesday.

“It's a temporary solution.” 

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Dan Wilkofsky

Dan Wilkofsky was a 2013-2014 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Amman, Jordan, where he worked with Talal Abu Ghazaleh Translation and the Ministry of Social Development. He has a BA in Classics (Latin) and Middle East Studies from Brown University.