AMMAN: A negotiating committee from the last rebel-held district in Homs city reached an oral agreement with the regime to begin a truce in what appears to be the first serious effort to end the two-year siege affecting 75,000 residents of Waer, a participant present at the meeting told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“This time we saw that the regime was serious about concluding a truce and quickly implementing it,” said a member of the rebel committee present during Tuesday's talks, who requested anonymity.
“I think that the regime is trying to show that it is capable of negotiating and working out settlement agreements before the upcoming international conference” slated for January, he added, which is expected to include representatives from the Syrian regime and opposition, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, the United States and others under UN auspices.
The regime and rebel committees reached an oral agreement, not yet codified in writing, at the A-Safir hotel in Homs on Tuesday that includes the release of an unknown number of detainees from regime prisons and the entrance of food and medicine into the neighborhood, to begin on Wednesday. As part of the agreement, 200 to 300 rebel fighters are slated to leave Waer this coming Saturday. The regime’s goal is for the district to eventually to become “free of weapons and militants,” Governor Talal al-Barazi was quoted by Iranian news agency al-Alam as saying Wednesday.
Al-Waer in Homs, in February. Photo courtesy of SPC.
Yet the opposition and regime negotiating committees came to an informal understanding that not all rebels are required to leave Waer, said the attendee. Only those who refuse the truce initiative, a “small minority,” he said, will leave for the rebel-controlled Idlib and Hama countrysides. It is unclear what role, if any, the remaining rebels in Waer will play in enforcing the truce, or whether they will eventually be asked to give up their arms.
Two civilians living in Waer who spoke to Syria Direct Wednesday emphasized their support for a truce only on the condition that rebel fighters, who number in the thousands, remain in the western district to protect civilians from future regime excesses. Ahrar a-Sham and Kataib al-Jihad al-Islami, affiliated with Feilaq a-Sham are the two largest factions active in the neighborhood.
“We support a truce, our children need it more than we do, but we won't accept one if it stipulates the exit of the rebels—they protect us,” Waer resident Abu Ibrahim told Syria Direct. “We don't trust the regime and its paramilitary militias that it doesn't have control over.”
A Waer rebel fighter who spoke to Syria Direct Wednesday, requesting anonymity, agreed: “We won't leave and abandon our families to become a target for the shabiha's hatred...the truce we recognize is one that allows rebels to stay in the neighborhood to protect civilians. In that case, we'll abide by all conditions including a ceasefire.”
The participants in Tuesday's negotiations included Deeb Zeitun, head of the Syrian mukhabarat, and Talal al-Barazi, the governor of Homs, according to the opposition committee representative. Also in attendance, said the source, were Yaqoub al-Helo, the representative of the United Nations Development Program in Syria and Khoula Matar, head of UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura's political office.
Waer has been completely surrounded by regime forces for more than two years, and is the only remaining rebel holdout district in Homs city after opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of a truce deal in May 2014. Aid caravans enter Waer sporadically. Residents grow plants, such as beets, lettuce and parsley, in private gardens as a source of food.
Previous attempts to reach a reconciliation were scuttled either by regime shelling of the neighborhood or by mysterious bombings carried out in nearby pro-regime Alawite neighborhoods of Homs, such as the infamous twin Akrama bombings that targeted a primary school in October 2014, killing dozens of children.
In the aftermath of that attack, for which no one claimed responsibility, regime supporters blamed Waer residents and the Syrian army began a new wave of air strikes against the neighborhood.
Now, faced with the possibility of serious truce negotiations, Waer residents appear supportive provided that armed rebels are allowed to remain.
“We agree to a truce as long as rebels stay to protect the neighborhood,” Samir Awwama, a current Waer resident who fled the nearby Bab a-Sabaa neighborhood, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
“In order to stop the bloodshed between the two sides, stop the fighting and suffering.”