January 30, 2014
By Osama Abu Zaid and Elizabeth Parker-Magyar
AMMAN: A verbal agreement between the Syrian regime and opposition to evacuate women and children and allow some measure of food and medical aid into the blockaded district of Old Homs has fallen apart as convoys sit idly nearby and residents fear regime reprisals.
“Most of these families are still worried about leaving without true guarantees because we all know the regime often betrays [its word],” said Abu Mazen, 33, an activist and resident still inside Old Homs, made up of 13 rebel-held neighborhoods in central Homs that have been completely encircled by regime forces for more than 600 days, with nothing and no one allowed in or out.
After Sunday’s announcement that the Syrian government and opposition had agreed to allow women and children to evacuate the neighborhoods and would continue to negotiate the possibility of humanitarian aid going in, the Syrian government has since been unwilling to negotiate allowing a humanitarian aid convoy to enter the besieged area.
The damaged Dar al-Salam mosque in Old Homs. Photo courtesy of Twitter user @GreatKhanPK.
For the estimated 500 families trapped behind the regime’s blockade, the mere evacuation of citizens, untethered to a deal to allow the entry of food aid, is raising concerns families would be separated, some evacuees would be detained, arrested or tortured, and Old Homs would be exposed to a subsequent scorched-earth bombardment.
Some Syrians inside Old Homs, sealed off to humanitarian aid since November 2012, compared the proposed evacuation to last October’s evacuation of the blockaded Damascus suburb of Moadimiyet e-Sham, where residents had been left to subsist only on olives and grass.
Following the evacuation of few hundred of Moadimiyet’s residents, opposition activists charged the Syrian government had detained and interrogated citizens fleeing famine.
“Many families in other besieged areas were given promises that they would not be touched, but the regime harassed the families that left areas in the Damascus suburbs,” said Abu Mazen.
Old Homs residents say they do not want to leave their homes, but rather want the blockade to end.
“If they make it a condition that we should leave Homs, we will not,” Tha’er, an activist in Homs’ Khaldiyeh district, told Syria Direct.
“We are not planning to leave, ever,” he added. “We only need families and injured people to go, and for aid to enter.”
Helping starving civilians ‘not an achievement’
The Syrian regime may have agreed on Monday that aid should be allowed in to Old Homs, but by Thursday aid convoys remained on standby, with Syrian officials backpedaling. By Wednesday, state media outlets were pumping out insistences that all humanitarian issues at Geneva II henceforth be addressed simultaneously.
“Homs is a humanitarian issue which shouldn’t be exploited politically,” said Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, official Syrian news agency SANA reported.
As convoys from the U.N. World Food Program remain queued in government-controlled Homs, the Syrian government did not budge, insisting the evacuation of citizens amply substituted for the entry of a convoy.
“There are civilians in the old city in Homs,” said al-Zoubi from Geneva on Wednesday, touting the Syrian government’s coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the U.N. “They could leave the area, and the state will provide them with all services.”
Except that they can’t. In vehement, almost immediate responses, SARC and the U.S. Department of State criticized the Syrian government’s pretense of having made any concessions, as no one has been yet able to leave.
The groups have accused Syria’s government of ignoring negotiations on the systemic humanitarian concern in Homs by barring humanitarian organizations entry into the neighborhoods where its blockades are starving civilians. The regime has demanded rebels inside put down their weapons before the blockade is lifted.
“Demanding opposition forces leave an area or put down their weapons before allowing the delivery of food and other much needed humanitarian assistance does not constitute an acceptable offer of humanitarian access,” U.S. State Department spokesman Edward Vasquez said in a statement Wednesday.
“We’ve seen the regime do this before, as part of its despicable ‘kneel or starve’ campaign,” he continued, referencing the ‘kneel or starve’ signs activists report seeing at government checkpoints around Homs.
Meanwhile, the agreement to evacuate women and children from Old Homs, the Red Crescent pointed out, is neither new nor particularly generous, as unarmed civilians are suffering from the blockade.
“The Red Crescent does not consider the approval of women and children’s evacuation a new achievement, since this approval was granted more than a year ago,” the SARC, which cooperates with the regime, announced in a statement on Wednesday.
The evacuation is not an “appropriate solution,” the statement continued, as it “would lead to fractured families and increased pressure on civilians who remain inside.”
As citizens inside Old Homs expressed their fears and U.N. aid agencies insisted on the entry of an aid convoy, the Syrian government’s governor in Homs, Talal al-Barazi, framed his meeting with U.N. officials throughout the week as planning for evacuations.
“We have completed all arrangements for the civilians who want to get out of the neighborhoods of the old city of Homs,” said al-Barazi, announced after meeting with U.N. officials Wednesday, SANA reported.
Once a trust-building measure, the deal’s failure has only exposed the monumental challenges of a negotiated peace settlement.
On Thursday, as the World Food Program’s convoy remained idling in government-controlled Homs for a third day, one activist in blockaded Homs said that even if food is allowed through, people will be afraid to eat it.
“We fear the regime will poison the convoys,” said Khaled al-Talawi.
Mohammed al-Haj Ali contributed reporting to this article.
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