Shakeup in Waer surrender talks as Russia joins negotiating table

Residents of the last rebel-controlled district of Homs city awoke on Wednesday morning to silence. For the second straight day, there were no bombs falling overhead, no mortars careening into apartment buildings.

The two-day calm in Waer follows a wave of regime attacks on the rebel-held district, which has killed more than 20 residents and injured at least 150 others since the beginning of November. The regime’s daily assault of mortars, sniper fire and tank shells led to fears that surrender talks would once again fall apart, Syria Direct reported last week.

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 have already left to the north Homs countryside since the August agreement, the Assad regime has only released 194.

Syrian state media has not reported on Waer since September.

Waer truce talks began in late 2015, but the detainee issue seems to be the sticking point. Earlier this week, perhaps in an effort to break the deadlock, Russian negotiators met with Waer’s representatives for the first time.

Russia is looking “to restart the negotiations,” a Waer rebel negotiator tells Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid on condition of anonymity.

Moscow wants “direct involvement in the talks.”

Q: How did communication begin between you and the Russians?

An officer from the State Security branch contacted one of the members of the [Waer negotiating] committee. He officially informed us that there would be a meeting attended by a Russian delegation from the Hmeimim military base on Monday. We agreed to the meeting, in the hopes of finally completing this agreement.

 A Waer emergency shelter destroyed on November 22. Photo courtesy of Waer 24.

Q: Who attended the meeting, and where did it take place?

The meeting was held in the administration building at the entrance to Waer. There were three Russian officers, led by Andrei Baria Putin, the head of the Center for National Reconciliation in Homs, belonging to the Hmeimim military base.

Q: Were regime officers present?

Yes, there was a new officer, Ibrahim Darwish, a brigadier general. He told us he was the head of the State Security branch in Homs, replacing Aqab Abbas, who had been dismissed from State Security and moved to Daraa. Abbas had previously been responsible for Waer and the negotiations.

Q: Why do you think Russia is intervening directly in the Waer agreement? What happened in the meeting?

It is clear that there is an upper-level decision by the Syrian authorities. It could be a Russian decision as well, to restart the negotiations and reach a swift solution without tangling matters further.

The greatest proof of that is the dismissal of Aqab Abbas and the appointment of a different officer. This could indicate the failure of Abbas to conclude the Waer issue. Now, another Syrian officer has taken charge of the matter, but the Russians want direct involvement in the talks.

During the meeting, we presented the Russian delegation with the minutes of previous meetings with the regime, as well as the terms of the negotiations that were agreed upon in late 2015. We explained to them how the regime tries to dodge the issue regarding detainees.

Their response was [that they would] consider a ceasefire for a certain period in order to lay the groundwork for completing the negotiations. On Monday evening, we were informed about the five-day ceasefire starting on Tuesday morning.

Q: What is the next step, after the ceasefire?

Now we are waiting for other meetings with the Russians this week, in hopes of coming to an agreement on the matter of detainees. We have not backed down from that condition of the agreement, nor will we ever. 

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.

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.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.