Second wave of Waer fighters, families leave for north Homs as ceasefire deal inches forward

AMMAN: For the second time in less than a week, more than 100 rebel fighters left Homs city’s Waer on Monday, completing the first stage of the blockaded, opposition-held district’s ceasefire agreement with the Syrian government, local residents told Syria Direct.

Opposition officials in Waer, a western suburb of Homs city, agreed to a regime-proposed ceasefire agreement late last month.

Under the terms of the deal, opposition fighters would leave the district in four waves in exchange for the regime releasing rebel prisoners and opening checkpoints leading in and out of the besieged enclave.

“This agreement is both tragic and beautiful at the same time,” Hassan al-Asmar, a Waer resident, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“It’s tragic because our rebels—our brothers—are leaving, but at the same time this agreement will allow prisoners to be released.”

Monday’s evacuation, in which 131 fighters and 119 accompanying family members were relocated to rebel-held territory in northern Homs—territory which, like Waer, is encircled by pro-regime forces—follows an earlier evacuation of 120 fighters and their families last Thursday.

 A wave of rebels leave Waer on Monday. Photo courtesy of Abody Ahfad Khaled.

Although the total number of relocated rebels falls well below the 500 fighters mandated by the agreement, the deal is expected to move forward to the next stage, which requires that local government security officials provide information on the status of thousands of detainees held in regime prisons.

A previous Waer ceasefire agreement fell through this March after reaching a similar stage. At the time, opposition officials accused the government of reneging on a promise to release more than 7,000 detainees, Syria Direct reported.

“Waer residents are afraid that the ongoing agreement won’t hold,” Waer citizen journalist Jalal al-Talawi told Syria Direct.

“This is because the last time around the regime didn’t fulfill its part of the agreement when it came to the prisoner release.”

‘A Syrian creation’

Waer’s ceasefire deal is similar to other agreements negotiated between the regime and opposition communities in western Syria, including the Outer Damascus towns of Darayya and Moadamiyet a-Sham.

The Syrian opposition has condemned the agreements, claiming that the regime is engaging in “demographic change” by forcefully relocating rebel fighters and their families—the vast majority of whom are Sunni—away from their hometowns.

For their part, Syrian government officials say that the deals offer local communities the opportunity to “return to the nation’s bosom,” a euphemism for ending sieges and normalizing relations with the government.

 Waer rebels and their families arrive in a-Dar al-Kabira on Monday. Photo courtesy of Abody Ahfad Khaled

In pro-regime media, government officials have championed the Waer agreement in particular, saying that the deal is a success in that it was brokered by Syrians without foreign intervention.

“The Waer agreement is a Syrian creation, one bereft of foreign influence,” Ali Haydar, the regime’s Minister of National Reconciliation, told Syria’s state media outlet, SANA, on Tuesday.

The United Nations has refused to participate in the evacuation of pro-opposition residents from their homes, saying it is not in compliance with international law.

“Agreements resulting in a mass evacuation of civilians after a prolonged period of besiegement do not comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law,” said UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien in a statement late last month.

The UN refusal to supervise the transport of fighters and their families briefly caused the Waer agreement to stumble last week, after more than 1,000 residents refused evacuation to rebel-held Idlib without international supervision.

The agreement resumed after government officials proposed the northern Homs countryside, which is only a 15-minute drive from Waer, as an alternative location for evacuation. 

Most of the Waer residents who registered for the evacuation to Idlib refused to go to north Homs, with two telling Syria Direct last week that the medical and security situation there is the same as, if not worse than, in Waer.

Opposition negotiators told Syria Direct last week that they accepted the proposal after regime officials threatened “military escalation” and briefly closed several checkpoints around the district.

Facing regime threats of a return to siege and shelling, more than half a dozen Waer residents have told Syria Direct that they support the agreement as a means to avoid future bloodshed.

“For all of its virtues and its shortcomings, I’m with this agreement,” Waer resident as al-Asmar told Syria Direct.

“Quite simply because it will save innocent lives.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

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.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.