AMMAN: A convoy of 2,000 opposition fighters and residents departed the long-disputed Waer district of Homs city on Monday, bringing the Assad regime one step closer to a complete reassertion of control over Syria’s third-largest city.
Monday’s departure of 45 buses is the second since a final, weeks-long regime offensive on the encircled district brought a defeated rebel negotiating team to the table to surrender earlier this month.
The Russian-backed agreement in which the opposition hands over full control of the western district of Waer, represents nothing short of a full surrender. After nearly two years of negotiations, the opposition had to concede what until then had been a deal-breaking point: Securing the release of 7,300 detainees held by the regime.
Monday’s evacuation proceeded smoothly, an opposition negotiator told Syria Direct, who said that the terms of the surrender agreement “are in the regime’s interests.”
A Russian police commander watches as opposition fighters and their families leave Waer on March 18. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.
“We lost our land, our country, and all we get from this agreement is the chance to keep our lives,” he said. “The regime, meanwhile, will be able to say ‘all of Homs has been liberated’ once the last convoy leaves the city, so, yes, the terms are in their favor.”
Around 11:00am Monday, buses transported 1,850 Waer residents—including 200 fighters and their families in addition to the sick, disabled and seriously injured—towards Jarablus, a city in northern Aleppo province on the border with Turkey that is held by Ankara-backed Syrian rebels. Jarablus is the same destination of last Sunday’s evacuation.
Monday’s convoy was initially scheduled to depart two days earlier, and not to Jarablus but to rebel-held Idlib province in the northwest. Heavy fighting between rebel and regime forces in adjacent Hama province led to delays and re-routing, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.
Although the evacuation agreement allows for Waer fighters and residents to go to one of three opposition-controlled regions—the northern Aleppo city of Jarablus, the northern Homs countryside or Idlib province—it was not immediately clear whether the nearby fighting has eliminated Idlib province as a destination.
The Assad regime has transported thousands of rebel fighters and their families to Idlib province in recent months following similar forced surrenders of opposition-held territory across the country.
Waer residents board buses bound for Jarablus on Monday. Photo courtesy of the Homs Media Center.
From the bus to Jarablus, Abu Faris, a former Waer resident and father of four children, told Syria Direct that he chose to leave his home when confronted with two stark choices.
“Either I return to the ‘embrace of the regime’ or I accept forced displacement,” he said. “There was no other choice…and the blood of so many martyrs who died would not allow me to stay.”
The terms of the Waer agreement, signed on March 13, stipulate that evacuations of around 1,500 residents occur on a weekly basis until all residents who refuse to remain in the district have left. Some 10,000 to 15,000 residents out of a total of 50,000 are expected to leave Waer in the upcoming weeks, according to the Homs Media Center.
Syrian state media outlet, SANA, confirmed Monday’s evacuation of Waer residents. The agency has repeatedly praised the reconciliation agreement as an opportunity for “all those who are willing to get back on the right track” and “return to their normal lives.”
Russian, regime and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) representatives were all on hand to supervise the evacuation.
Opposition forces escort buses transporting residents from Waer upon their arrival in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab on March 19. Photo courtesy of Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images.
Inside the district, Jalal Talawi, an activist and correspondent with Syrian media outlet SMART News, described the atmosphere as one of “immense sadness.”
“People are leaving their land; they’re bidding farewell to their homes…and they’re going to live in camps in Jarablus,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “That said, today we’re able to actually eat inside Waer, which is because the agreement was a trade: We gave up land in exchange for food, drink and an end to bombing.
Waer residents told Syria Direct that there have been “no violations of the agreement from either side,” as open checkpoints now permit the entrance of food into the district for the first time in months. Meanwhile, SARC personnel are providing desperately needed medical care to the sick and injured.
Waer is 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 have encircled Waer’s 50,000 residents since 2013.