AMMAN: Contrary to some Western media reports, remaining rebels in Homs city's last opposition-held district say they have no intention of leaving the neighborhood or turning over all their weapons after concluding a truce with the regime, neighborhood residents, fighters and a rebel negotiator told Syria Direct on Thursday.
In accordance with the first of three stages in the Waer truce that went into effect on Wednesday, 300 fighters who oppose it were permitted to leave the neighborhood for the rebel-held city of Qalaat al-Madiq in the western Hama countryside. They were accompanied by 400 family members.
“This is the only batch of fighters and civilians who will leave the neighborhood according to the agreement,” a member of the rebel committee who negotiated the truce agreement told Syria Direct Wednesday, requesting anonymity.
Rebels leave Waer on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Jad Tawil.
Serious negotiations had been going on for at least a week before the truce became operational on Wednesday. The rebel negotiator told Syria Direct on December 2 before the deal was reached that “this time we saw that the regime was serious about concluding a truce and quickly implementing it.”
According to a copy of the agreement provided by the committee member to Syria Direct, the truce will unfold in three stages, each lasting approximately 25 days.
The first stage involves, among other items: A ceasefire, the departure of Waer rebels opposed to the truce, the entrance of humanitarian aid, and the re-opening of the Duwwar al-Mohandiseen checkpoint connecting Waer to other parts of Homs city in order to end more than two years of encirclement.
The other two stages involve the rebels handing over their heavy weaponry, along with a portion of medium weaponry such as heavy-caliber machine guns and rocket launchers in exchange for the release of detainees in regime prisons. Later phases also allow more rebels still against the truce the opportunity to exit.
Fighters, journalists, civilians and the negotiating committee member told Syria Direct that rebels intend to stay inside Waer, with light and some medium weapons, in order to protect residents from regime retaliation and “preserve the district's revolutionary character.”
On reports that all fighters will leave Waer by the end of January with the government reasserting full control, a spokesman for the pro-opposition Homs Media Center who is currently in Waer said: “Damn it [al-aama], that's not true at all.”
“We're going to hand over a small amount of our medium weapons,” said Mohammed al-Homsi, and that, he added, only after the regime releases 5,000 detainees as stipulated in the second stage of the truce agreement.
One association of professional journalists also denied that the Syrian army will enter Waer after pushing out all the fighters.
“The rumors the regime is spreading concerning the Syrian army entering the neighborhood in the coming days are false—the rebels on the ground are staying, and won't leave, not at the beginning of the agreement nor the end,” the Homs Media Professionals Association, which includes journalists inside Waer and in the northern countryside, said in an announcement Wednesday.
In an interview with Syria Direct last week, the rebel negotiator said that his committee came to an agreement with the regime that only those fighters who refuse the truce initiative, a “small minority,” will leave.
Residents and fighters who spoke to Syria Direct last week emphasized their support for a truce on the condition that armed rebels, who number in the low thousands, remain in Waer 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 last week. “We don't trust the regime and its paramilitary militias that it doesn't have control over.”
A Waer rebel fighter, 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.”
It is unclear what role, if any, the remaining rebels in Waer will ultimately play in enforcing the truce, or whether they will eventually be asked to give up their arms.
Equally unclear is how the neighborhood of Waer, under a truce but with armed rebels living among the estimated 75,000 residents, will interact with the rest of regime-controlled Homs, Syria's third-largest city.
“There will be a sense of coexistence between us and the [Sunni] neighborhoods of al-Ghouta, al-Inshaat, and al-Hamra...as for [Alawite] Akrama and a-Zahraa, known for their loyalty to the regime, I think that hard feelings will remain, especially after five years of war,” said Mohammed al-Homsi.
“They will continue to treat us like enemies because Waer will retain its revolutionary character.”