Pro-regime militias undercut truce as Homs governor orders adherence

ISTANBUL: Local pro-regime militias are reportedly undermining a truce that went into effect last month between the Syrian regime and opposition representatives in northern Homs.

In accordance with the terms of the truce, the regime has stopped aerial bombardment in the southern pocket of the rebel-held northern Homs countryside, an area encircled for four years by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies.

While the rest of the northern countryside was not included under the agreement, the truce also allowed for the opening of roads and free movement of goods and people between Homs city and the entire pocket of rebel-held territory to the north.

In return, rebels agreed to cease targeting the road that connects Homs province to the coastal province of Tartus to the west. The armed opposition has taken aim at vehicles moving along that route for years, forcing the regime to employ “long roads, among them paths through the mountains, to reach the coast from areas in central Syria,” Faris al-Homsi, a citizen journalist in the northern countryside, told Syria Direct Tuesday.

Homs governor Talal Barazi ordered regime soldiers over the weekend to implement part of the truce agreement and open a route leading from the provincial capital into the northern countryside.

But in one town that sits nearly 20km northeast of Homs, residents and local militias, primarily Iranian-supported Liwa al-Rida that was formed in early 2015, as well as the National Defense Forces (NDF) have vowed to keep the road closed.

 Pro-regime militia members at Saturday's protest in Mushrifa. Photo courtesy of Assad's Homs News Network.

Residents and fighters from the town of al-Mushrifa organized a protest this past Saturday, pledging that the road leading to the encircled, rebel-held northern Homs countryside will remain closed, reported pro-regime Assad's Homs News Network on Saturday.

One Mushrifa resident who spoke to Syria Direct said that the “terrorists” of northern Homs are responsible for shedding civilian blood in Homs city and elsewhere, and neither they nor their families deserve a reprieve from the four-year-long encirclement.

“If the crossing were opened, the terrorists' families will leave” the encircled area, Wasim al-Ali, a resident of al-Mushrifa, told Syria Direct Tuesday.

Al-Ali said that rebels in northern Homs “carry out bombings in neighborhoods of Homs city—so how can we allow their families [to leave]?”

A series of mysterious bombings has rocked Homs over the past two years and left deep wounds tinged with sectarianism; in one famous incident in October 2014, twin explosions directed at an elementary school in the Alawite-majority Akrama district killed more than 40 children.

In photos of Saturday’s protest, published by pro-regime Assad's Homs News Network, two local pro-regime militiamen signal that retribution is the impetus for keeping the road closed. One fighter holds a sign reading “the murderers of our people at a-Zara will never pass by here.” Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham took over the nearby town of a-Zara on May 12; pro-regime media has accused rebels of massacring dozens of civilians there.

The local militias have not officially commented on their position towards mid-May's truce deal. But al-Mushrifa fighters' apparent opposition to the agreement could stem from material considerations as well, says one journalist from the northern countryside.

“It's well known from [experience at] previous checkpoints that the militias take large sums from cars entering with food,” Yaarib a-Dali, a citizen journalist from northern Homs, told Syria Direct Wednesday.

Tensions have flared up before between the Syrian regime and allied militias in Homs, whose members are mostly drawn from the local population. In April 2015, regular Syrian army soldiers stormed the neighborhood of a-Zahra in Homs city and fought with the NDF there after residents accused the latter of Mafia-like behavior, reported Syria Direct at the time.

After Saturday's protest in al-Mushrifa, opposition fighters and officials appear to be split over the future of the delicate truce that purported to bring relief to encircled residents.

But one local rebel fighter in the northern countryside who gave his name as Waleed al-Homsi told Syria Direct on Tuesday that vast leeway granted to local militias will doom the agreement to failure.

“This agreement won't come to anything, and won't last long,” said al-Homsi.

“The regime has no power over the militias.”

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.