Surrender talks fall apart in last rebel-held district of Homs city

AMMAN: Regime forces continued a harsh offensive for the seventh straight day on Thursday on the last rebel-controlled district of Homs city, with surrender talks on hold in the latest setback of a two-year negotiation process.

The ongoing wave of attacks on Waer—the last holdout district under opposition control in the provincial capital—has killed at least 10 residents since last Friday. Earlier this week, regime shelling severely damaged the district’s only medical center, which serves Waer’s more than 50,000 residents.

“We just don’t have the materials to rebuild,” Dr. Ali Jamaa, a family medicine specialist who works at the targeted medical center, told Syria Direct after Tuesday’s attack.

This week’s attacks were ground-based only, though warplanes were spotted flying over the district on Thursday in the midst of a “barbaric bombing campaign targeting civilian homes,” local opposition media reported.

The seven-day assault of mortars, sniper fire and tank shells comes amidst a now-faltering truce deal between Waer rebels and the regime, whereby the former agreed in August to leave the district in exchange for the release of more than 7,300 government detainees.

More than 600 rebel fighters and their families boarded busses en route to the north Homs countryside in two waves in September. The regime, meanwhile, has reportedly refused to carry through with their end of the prisoner release, and Waer residents, rebels and negotiators accuse the regime of turning now to force to renegotiate the terms of the surrender.

 Regime shelling destroys Waer apartment building. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Local Coordination Committee.

Pro-regime media accuse Waer rebels of “violating the negotiated surrender,” by firing on the Syrian Arab Army, pro-regime daily Al-Watan reported on Tuesday. “In response to the militants’ breach of the agreement, the army responded by shelling their positions,” the paper reported. Syrian state news agency SANA did not report on Waer.

Waer residents, meanwhile, reject the assertion that local rebels fired first, instead claiming that the regime’s “unprovoked bombing campaign” is nothing more than “a negotiating tactic.”

“The regime is just trying to put pressure on the residents to accept new terms,” Abu Fadil, the pseudonym of a rebel fighter with the Waer-based Liwa al-Baraa, told Syria Direct.

“The regime isn’t actually looking to storm the district,” he added. “They want residents to keep living in fear.”

After three years of regime encirclement, Waer residents say they are willing to risk the collapse of the negotiations if their demands for the release of the prisoners are not met.

“The regime would prefer to go to war before they give us our prisoners back,” rebel fighter Abu Fadil told Syria Direct. “But if the regime wants to raze Waer to the ground, let them do it.”

In March 2016, surrender talks fell apart amidst opposition accusations that the regime reneged on its promise to release detainees, Syria Direct reported.

“We had an agreement, and no amount of intimidation or escalation is going to get us to give up on the prisoners,” Abu Fadil said.  

Waer is the only remaining rebel holdout district in Homs city after opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of wide-ranging truce across the provincial capital in May 2014.

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.

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.

Ahmad Jawhar

Before the war, Ahmad was an English teacher in Homs city. He began his journalism career reporting for pro-opposition news outlets in Amman.

Mohammed al-Aseel

Mohammad was a law student at Damascus University when the revolution began. Originally from Daraa, he moved to Jordan in 2013.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.