AMMAN: More than 350 residents of Homs city’s last rebel-held district left for the opposition-controlled north Homs countryside on Thursday in accordance with a multi-stage ceasefire agreement with the Syrian government despite the absence of United Nations [UN] monitors, an opposition negotiator told Syria Direct.
Opposition officials in Waer, a western suburb of Homs city, agreed to a regime-proposed ceasefire agreement late last month on the condition that UN representatives monitor the evacuation of hundreds of fighters and their families from the district.
A UN spokesman told Syria Direct on Thursday that they monitor evacuations only at the request of all parties. In the case of Waer, opposition officials say they have requested UN monitors multiple times.
“We only get involved in evacuation operations when requested by all parties and in accordance with international humanitarian law and protection standards,” a spokesman for the Office of the UN Secretary General told Syria Direct.
Thursday's evacuation was the second attempt this week to transport rebel fighters and their families from the encircled enclave. On Monday, government-sponsored buses arrived in Waer to transport more than 1,000 Waer residents, including 300-400 rebel fighters and hundreds of sick and injured civilians to rebel-controlled Idlib province. In total, rebel fighters in Waer number just over 5,000, district residents told Syria Direct.
Waer residents say goodbye to friends and neighbors before leaving for the northern Homs countryside on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Waer journalist Jalal Talawi.
But hours before the planned evacuation, a representative of UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura told the Waer negotiating team that they would not be participating in the evacuation procedures, the opposition negotiator told Syria Direct.
A second UN official, from the envoy’s office, declined to confirm to Syria Direct the details of their conversations with opposition negotiators.
When asked for his opinion on why the UN refused to participate in the Waer evacuation, an opposition official in the district speculated that supervision of Syrians’ forced march away from their home might not be good “optics” for the world body.
“The UN seems to have become aware of the optics of its participation in the removal of Syrians [from their hometowns] and has therefore refused to get involved in these evacuations,” Walid al-Faris, a spokesman for the Waer local council told Syria Direct Thursday.
In a statement published by state-run SANA news on Thursday, Homs provincial governor Talal Barazi called the UN decision not to participate in the evacuation “unconstructive and bewildering.” The UN spokesman did not confirm whether the regime requested the presence of monitors.
Without the UN’s presence on Monday, Waer residents refused to embark on the hours-long journey to Idlib province, saying they had “no trust” in the Syrian government to ensure their safe arrival.
“At this point, the regime officials got frustrated and insisted that the evacuation go forward and threatened to shell the neighborhood and go back to blocking all routes in and out,” a opposition negotiator who told Syria Direct Thursday, requesting anonymity.
On Tuesday, government forces briefly closed all of the checkpoints into Waer and two mortar shells fell on the district but resulted in no injuries, Syrian Voice correspondent Yarub a-Dali told Syria Direct.
Citing regime threats of further “military escalation,” the negotiator said the committee accepted an amended evacuation deal in which rebel fighters and their families could leave the district for a pocket of opposition territory in north Homs which, like Waer, is encircled by government forces and allied militias including the Lebanese Hezbollah. But there would be no UN monitors.
More than two-thirds of the residents “refused to go to north Homs,” said the anonymous negotiator, “after we had been overwhelmed with requests to leave to Idlib a few days ago.”
Several Waer residents that spoke with Syria Direct were conflicted over the UN decision not to participate in Thursday’s evacuation. While some said they welcomed the UN decision not to participate in what they called the regime’s “project of demographic change,” others said they had anticipated the UN supervision as a “safe way” to leave the encircled district.
“My family is in Turkey. I wanted to go to Idlib so I could be reunited with them and so they can take care of me,” Abu Salim Murad, a 50-year-old retiree with diabetes and high blood pressure, told Syria Direct.
Those who accepted the evacuation to north Homs, including 120 rebel fighters and their families, gathered just before mid-day Thursday and loaded into eight government buses for the 15-minute drive to Dar al-Kabira, a rural town located due north of Homs city.
“Most of the families were afraid to leave,” Nidal, a rebel fighter who arrived in Dar al-Kabira carrying only a personal bag and his AK-47 automatic rifle.
“We wanted the UN to send observers to supervise the evacuation because the regime is not trustworthy,” he said.
“But the UN abandoned us.”
**Correction: A previous version of this article identified Walid al-Faris as an opposition negotiator in Waer. This is incorrect. Al-Faris is a spokesman for the Waer Local Council. Syria Direct regrets the mistake.