Inside Waer surrender talks, Russia sets the terms: ‘It’s not in our control,’ says opposition negotiator

When Russian negotiators met for the first time with representatives from the last rebel-controlled district of Homs city last November, there was hope for a “restart to negotiations” that had stalled since late 2015, Syria Direct reported.

The Russians sought the surrender of Waer, and still do.

To that end, over the past three months, pro-regime forces are maintaining an airtight encirclement of Waer. Last month they fired on a humanitarian aid convoy seeking to deliver aid and bombed Waer’s estimated 50,000 residents on a near-daily basis, killing dozens of citizens.

After one of Waer’s deadliest months in recent memory, one opposition negotiator active in the surrender talks describes the asymmetry of Russia and the regime against an opposition with almost no leverage.

During this week’s talks, Russia, standing in for the regime, promised a temporary ceasefire in Waer that began just after midnight on Wednesday morning. Will it hold? “It’s not in our control,” the negotiator tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier, on condition of anonymity.

 Waer district of Homs city, November 2016. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.

“In each and every meeting with the Russians, they give us three options: The bombing can continue on Waer, we can accept amnesty, apologize to them and return to the bosom of the regime or we can be displaced,” he added.

“These are our options, the Russians tell us. There’s no other choice.”

Q: You’ve met with the Russian delegation for two straight days alongside the Waer negotiating committee. Where do things currently stand between the two sides?

After two days of meetings with the Russian delegation, there are three new developments. A bilateral ceasefire went into effect at 12:01 am on Wednesday, neither side will block humanitarian aid and there will an entity monitoring the ceasefire in accordance with the Astana agreement.

Q: How long will this ceasefire last? Has it been holding so far?

They didn’t specify how long the ceasefire will last, but as of today, there haven’t been any bombings.

Q: Given all that has happened in Waer over these past few weeks, much less these past three years, do you really believe that the regime will abide by this promise of a ceasefire?

It’s not in our control. All we can do is wait and see and hope that the lives of 50,000 people living inside Waer will be spared.

Q: As someone present at the negotiating table, what do you see as the trajectory of these talks moving forward?

In my opinion, Waer is headed in the direction of forced evacuation along the lines of what has happened in a number of other places. It’s either going to be now or sometime later.

In each and every meeting with the Russians, they give us three options: The bombing can continue on Waer, we can accept amnesty, apologize to them and return to the bosom of the regime or we can be displaced. These are our options, the Russians tell us. There’s no other choice.

The Russians have not offered to release the detainees the regime is holding.

 Waer neighborhood from a distance, September 2016. Photo courtesy of LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images.

[Ed.: 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. 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.]

Q: You say that you’ve been meeting with the Russian delegation. Has the regime had a presence at these talks?

We’re meeting with the Russian delegation today, and the regime is participating in these talks.

But, previously, there had not been direct negotiations between the regime and the Waer negotiating committee since mid-February, and there was no communication between the two sides during this time.

The Russians are acting as the middlemen between the Waer negotiating committee and the regime.

Q: Are there any other important points that have come up in your negotiations with the Russian delegation?

We spoke with the Russian delegation about the recent explosions that took place at the two military security branches, and we emphasized that Waer has nothing to do with them. We also discussed the old agreement with the regime and the reasons why it failed. Namely, we stressed that the regime has refused on more than one occasion to carry out the terms of that agreement.

We also explained the medical situation for civilians in Waer and their fear of the regime entering the district. Lastly, we shared our thoughts on the negotiations in Geneva and Astana.        

Q: Lastly, could you talk about conditions in Waer following the regime’s month-long bombing campaign on the district?

Waer is experiencing an increasingly deteriorating humanitarian situation. Food hasn’t gotten in for six months. [Ed.: The last time an aid convoy reached Waer was October 26, 2016]. Bread is running out, and we’re entirely out of flour. The medical situation is incredibly difficult, particularly in light of the extremely severe shortages in medical supplies. In short, the situation in Waer is catastrophic.

In our capacity as the negotiating committee, we can see that the regime wants to take over control of this district by force. They want to have everyone who plans on staying sign an amnesty deal. Any they want to do all of this without ever going through with all of the terms of the signed agreement, even though we’ve already carried out a number of its conditions.

 

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.

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.

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.