January 26, 2014
By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar, Osama Abu Zaid and Mohammed al-Haj Ali
Updated 21:32 Amman, Jordan.: U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi announced Sunday that a tentative agreement had been reached allowing women and children to leave blockaded Old Homs.
The deal falls short of the initial U.N. proposal the regime and opposition delegations began negotiating Saturday, a brief ceasefire to allow the entry of humanitarian aid. “We hope that an aid convoy will be sent to Homs by tomorrow,” Syrian National Coalition spokesperson Louay Safi said, two hours before the limited deal was announced.
Nonetheless, the evacuation of Homs’ women and children, if implemented, would mark the first tangible results of the Geneva II conference.
AMMAN: Despite residents’ concerns that a temporary cease-fire would come at the expense of a sustainable agreement, opposition and regime delegates at the Geneva II Saturday concentrated on a proposed ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into blockaded Old Homs.
Old Homs, which witnessed the first violent crackdown on protests and has been under regime siege for nearly 600 days, has emerged as an emotional rallying point for Syria’s opposition. An agreement on a cease-fire in its 13 neighborhoods could be a trust-building measure as the Geneva conference moves forward.
“Homs is different [from other besieged areas] because it was a center of protests from the start, and at one point it was the only city standing up to the regime,” said media activist Molhem al-Jundi.
Homs’ residents decry the blockade as a war crime: “the regime is implementing a policy of starving Homs’s people,” said Suhaib, an activist inside the city.
In the early days of the blockade, residents lived off of food foraged from abandoned homes and supermarkets, Hassan Abu al-Zain, member of Homs’ Youth Revolutionary Council, told Syria Direct. Nearly two years later, “life has become disastrous” for the 800 families remaining in Old Homs, as 8 citizens have starved to death.
A resident of Old Homs calls for the opening of permanent aid corridors into and out of Homs. Photo courtesy of Bab Sebaa
Medical supplies are also scarce: as many as 1,800 citizens have been injured in daily bombardment and 100 are in need of urgent surgery, while a UNICEF representative told Syria Direct that aid workers had been unable to deliver polio vaccinations.
Nonetheless, some Homsis expressed the view that a temporary ceasefire to allow the entry of humanitarian aid could do more harm than good.
“I have been in besieged Homs for two years,” said a young man in a video posted online Saturday. “We don’t want a couple of cars with aid to enter. We want to open a [permanent] passage into besieged Homs.”
“After all this waiting, you tell us this bullshit.”
“They’re going to deliver us some aid,” said another young man in a separate video. “How long will this last? A day? Two? A month? I have not seen my family in two years; lift the blockade.”
A FIRST STEP
But a brief cease-fire in the neighborhoods, of limited strategic importance, may be the most straightforward issue under discussion at the Geneva II conference.
Under tight siege, the same Free Syrian Army-affiliated battalions have been defending the city since June 2012.
Extremist groups like Jabhat a-Nusra or Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham have no foothold in the city.
Whereas other groups have disavowed Geneva II and the fragile Syrian National Coalition’s (SNC) decision to negotiate with al-Assad’s delegation, the Free Syrian Army-affiliated leaders in Homs have expressed a willingness to consider supported any agreements the SNC makes.
“Our confidence in the coalition depends on what they present to us on the ground,” said Abu Thabit al-Hakima, a representative from the Civil Protection Battalions and Brigades in Homs.
On Friday, before the proposal was formally introduced in Geneva, the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs met with Ba’ath party Governor in Homs, Talal al-Barazi to discuss “means of delivering humanitarian aid to all persons in need in the province.”
But the composition of pro-regime forces in Homs raises further questions of the viability of a ceasefire. The forces laying siege to the old city are largely not affiliated with the Syrian army, but comprised of pro-Assad militias, Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shi’a combatants.
Nevertheless, Saturday marked the first day of face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition-in-exile in nearly three years of civil war.
Even as talks move forward in what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called “half-steps,” Homs continues to suffer under regime bombardment and blockade.
For more from Syria Direct, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.