AMMAN: The final convoy of opposition fighters and residents is departing the long-disputed Waer district of Homs on Sunday, marking the Assad regime’s complete reassertion of control over Syria’s third-largest city.
Sunday’s departure concludes a two-month-long, Russian-backed evacuation agreement that saw more than 15,000 rebels and their families leave the embattled district.
With the surrender of Waer, rebel forces cede control over their last remaining foothold in Homs city, once called the “capital of the revolution.” The defeat comes just six months after Syrian opposition factions lost Aleppo city and represents the latest in a series of increasing setbacks and surrenders nationwide.
Approximately 1,500 rebel fighters and their families began boarding buses in Waer on Sunday afternoon. When the buses leave the district, they will drive to the Hama countryside and convene with a second convoy of the same size which left Waer on Saturday night. From there, the buses will drive north to Idlib province and the northern Aleppo countryside city of Jarablus, and the evacuation of the last pocket of resistance in Homs city will be complete.
In accordance with the terms of the Waer agreement, residents were given the options of heading to rebel-held Idlib province, to the blockaded northern Homs countryside, or to ill-equipped camps in the north Aleppo countryside near the Turkish border. Waer’s 50,000 residents could also choose to remain in their homes.
Russian military police stand guard as opposition fighters and their families leave Waer on Saturday. Photo courtesy of AFP.
“The Waer neighborhood will be completely liberated from the militants” on Sunday, Russian state-owned media outlet, Sputnik, quoted the Homs governor Talal Barazi as saying the previous day.
The Russian-facilitated evacuation agreement is nothing short of a full surrender. A weeks-long regime offensive against Waer that included heavy airstrikes, mortars and sniper fire brought a defeated rebel negotiating team from the district to the table to surrender this past March.
After nearly two years of negotiations, the opposition had to concede what until then had been a deal-breaking point: securing the release—or learning the fates—of 7,300 detainees held in regime prisons.
Waer was the only remaining rebel district in Homs city since opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of a wide-ranging truce across the provincial capital in May 2015. Regime forces had encircled Waer’s 50,000 residents since 2013.
Russian military police entered Waer over the weekend as the last evacuees boarded buses, signaling the beginning of the second phase of the district’s return to regime control.
Up to 100 Russian officers facilitated the final evacuation, manned the one crossing into the district and began inspecting government buildings ahead of regime authorities’ scheduled return in six months.
“The Russian forces are right there, right in the middle of district,” Abu Ahmed, a Waer resident who chose to remain there told Syria Direct on Sunday. “I witnessed the Russian occupation of my land yesterday.”
In accordance with the March agreement, the “Russian military brigade, comprising 60-100 people” is tasked with a 10-point mission following the evacuation of all fighters from the district. Their responsibilities include maintaining “security and the rule of law inside the district” and keeping “the National Defense Forces as well as Shiite and other militias from entering the district.”
Waer fighters and their families before their Saturday departure. Photo courtesy of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images.
Although the agreement stipulates that regime forces are not permitted to enter the district for six months, Waer residents reported seeing regime personnel enter “the heart of the district” Sunday afternoon.
“The regime’s forces are right in the middle of the district, which is a clear violation of the terms of the agreement,” Abu Ahmed told Syria Direct around 4pm local time Sunday.
After the last evacuation of fighters, “the internal security forces will enter the neighborhood to preserve the rights of the citizens and to protect the public and private properties,” Syrian state media outlet, SANA, reported on Sunday. The news agency, however, did not clarify whether those forces would be Syrian or Russian.
Syria Direct spoke with five Waer residents on Sunday, some of whom departed on the final convoys out of the city, and some who stayed behind. Each conveyed a sense of dread and resignation at seeing the surrender of their district to Russian and regime forces.
“The last round of evacuations was the most difficult,” Jalal Talawi, a correspondent with pro-opposition Smart News told Syria Direct on Sunday from his bus en route to the north Aleppo countryside. “We left, and saw with our own eyes how Waer was handed to the regime and the Russians.”
“In Waer, it was as though we were a single family,” he added. “The evacuations have torn that apart, divided families between those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to leave.”