Why did Waer’s opposition drop its prisoner-release condition?

The surrender of the Waer district of Homs has not been an easy one. The negotiations began in 2015. They stopped, they started. The regime periodically bombarded Waer, in northwest Homs city, both from the air and the ground in order to put pressure on the 50,000 residents trapped inside the encircled area.

As Waer began to look like Germany’s Dresden in the aftermath of World War II, residents mentioned surrender. The opposition-held district divided along the lines of those who wanted to keep on fighting and those who did not. What most residents seemed to agree on, though, even until recently, was that the more than 7,300 detainees held by the regime had to be released.

“The matter of the detainees is not something we can back down from,” one of the opposition’s negotiators told Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier last November. “We told the regime that the people of Waer will not go into any agreement without the detainees. It’s the only term of the agreement that Waer benefits from. In order for the agreement to go through, it needs to be in the interests of each side.”

On Monday, opposition negotiators in Waer signed what can only be described as a full surrender with the regime and its Russian representatives. The word “detainees” is nowhere in the agreement.

Why did Waer’s opposition accept the regime’s terms and drop the prisoner-release demand?

“It didn’t make it into the final agreement, and the regime made clear that this would never be a condition,” the same negotiator told al-Zarier on Tuesday, on condition of anonymity.

“When we first met with the Russians, we brought up the matter of the detainees,” the negotiator said. “The Russians answered that they were terrorists, and this condition was never again brought up.”

Q: Since negotiations first began in 2015, the Waer negotiating committee has said that under absolutely no circumstances would they back down from the condition stipulating the release of more than 7,000 detainees from across Homs province held by the regime. For the first time in two years, that condition has been dropped. What changed? 

There are both internal and external factors that caused people to drop a number of the conditions.

Regarding the internal factors, the people of Waer have been under enormous pressure due to the encirclement and the bombing. There’s no food, there are no medical supplies. There’s nothing here. 

There are also external factors, such as the length of the revolution and the failure to reach any possible international solution.

These factors led the people of Waer to drop some of their demands.

A young man drags his suitcase during a previous evacuation of Waer district last September. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.

When the people first came out in demand of freedom, they never imagined that they would have to pay in blood for years. They never imagined that so many countries would intervene and stand beside the regime as it kills its own people.

Specifically with regard to the detainee release condition, yes, it’s been dropped. It didn’t make it into the final agreement, and the regime made clear that this would never be a condition. As the negotiating committee, we don’t want to lie to the people. There are neither negotiations nor a proposal on the table regarding the detainees. As unfortunate as it is to say, their fate remains unknown. Our thoughts stay with them out of fear for their safety and security.

When we first met with the Russians, we brought up the matter of the detainees. We asked about the charges that they faced and said that they were arrested for participating in the revolution. The Russians answered that they were terrorists, and this condition was never brought up again.

Q: Is this a surrender?

If there were two sides that were equal in strength, then you could call this surrender. But what you have here wasn’t equal, not in numbers and not in firepower. 

The revolution began solely for the purpose of freedom, nothing else. What the regime, however, has shown is that they are willing to use any means necessary to stamp out the revolution. From bombing to starvation, their oppression knows no bounds. There is no mercy.

The revolution became a war. All the while, the world watched, never lifting a finger.

The people of Waer have been beaten down so much, and now they feel the pressure to leave, or to return to the regime. But this is only because there truly is no other choice.

Q: Could you give us a sense of what negotiations looked like from the inside? What were the internal dynamics? What was the atmosphere?

The tension was readily apparent in that room. As members of the negotiating committee, we held the fate of 50,000 people in our hands. Meanwhile, we were sitting across the table from criminals, people who have killed and displaced thousands, people who’ve got no conscience and can’t be taken at their word.

So, yes, we felt a certain degree of oppression. We were negotiating the surrender of our land.

There were so many things that they said to deliberately get under our skin. They told us we’re ‘returning to the bosom of the regime’ and that ‘we’re the ones who ruined the country and haven’t even accomplished anything.’ Whenever they spoke of fighters they used the word ‘terrorists.’ We were absolutely at our wits’ end.

Q: How much of a role did the regime’s month-long bombing play in bringing the Waer negotiating committee to accept this agreement?

The regime used every type of weapon imaginable in their most recent military campaign, which began on February 8. The bombing went on non-stop for an entire month, and that’s to say nothing of the encirclement, the fact that medicine ran out entirely and even the United Nations’ aid was stolen before it could make it to Waer.

By continuously bombing Waer, the regime’s intentions were perfectly clear: If they can’t control the district through negotiations then they’ll impose their control by sheer force.

Residents and their belongings during an earlier evacuation from Waer district in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.

Q: In your opinion, was there any other choice—any alternative—to this agreement?

We speak for the 50,000 people inside the district of Waer. Had the bombing and encirclement continued, there would have been a major loss of innocent life. We had two—and only two—choices in front of us: Either the bombing continues or we accept our forced displacement. And so we chose the latter in order to save the lives of innocent children and civilians.

Q: What are the terms of the evacuation per the agreement that the Waer negotiating committee signed on Monday?

1) The first group of fighters will leave seven days after the signing of the agreement. This group will comprise 1,500 people overall, including 400-500 fighters.

2) Evacuations of the same size will continue on a weekly basis until the completion of the agreement.

3) Syrian and Russian forces will bear all responsibility for the safety of those leaving the district.

4) Those leaving will be allowed to go to one of the following areas: Jarablus, Idlib or the north Homs countryside.

5) There will be a general committee formed comprised of representatives from the Waer People’s Committee, the Homs Security Committee, and the Russian side to oversee the implementation of the agreement and to address violations.

The Russian Military Brigade

A Russian military brigade, comprising 60-100 people, including Russian officers, will be present in Waer after the evacuation of fighters is completed.

Their role:

1) To carefully monitor the execution of all stages of the agreement, to ensure that all parties abide by the agreement and to address violations,

2) To supervise the return of families and displaced people to the district of Waer and, additionally, the return of displaced people currently residing in Waer to their homes in other districts of Homs,

3) To maintain security and the rule of law inside the district,

4) To protect people as well as public and private property,

5) To secure public facilities,

6) To supervise the amnesty process and to participate in a monitoring committee along with government forces,

7) To prevent arrests of the people of the district,

8) To monitor and secure the checkpoint crossings into the district,

9) To make sure that the district is free of weapons and fighters by the end of the agreement,

10) To keep the National Defense Forces as well as Shiite and other militias from entering the district.

Amount of time for completion of the agreement: Two months from the date of its signing.

The parties responsible for the execution of the agreement from the regime are:

  • Major General Deeb Zaitoun, head of the Intelligence Division
  • The governor of Homs
  • The Homs Security Committee

The parties responsible for the execution of the agreement from the Russian side are:

  • Lieutenant General Igor Turchenyuk, the highest ranking Russian officer in Syria and the head of the Hmeimam Air Base. He personally led the negotiations from the Russian side.
  • His deputy, Colonel Rafael
  • Colonel Sergei, the Russian military official directly in charge of the Waer issue. He is the one who is tasked by the Russian leadership with signing the agreement.

 The parties responsible for the execution of the agreement from Waer are:

  • The Waer People’s Committee

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.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.