Evacuation has begun of an initial 200 women, children and the elderly from the besieged Old City of Homs under a UN-brokered agreement by which civilians leave and aid enters the rebel-held enclave. The implementation of the agreement is taking place during a three-day ceasefire and is one the first signs of a de-escalation of the Syrian conflict.
A small group of 11 civilians were the first to leave the Old City that has been pounded into ruins by Syrian Army artillery. Government and armed rebels blamed each other for the wounding of a man being evacuated.
Yacoub El Hillo, the UN Resident Coordinator in Syria, told The Independent in Damascus earlier in the week that the biggest sticking point previously preventing a deal had been “deep distrust” between the government and the armed groups inside the Old City. Speaking of the negotiations in which the UN played a central role, Mr El Hillo said that “in the last two weeks it has been an incredible back-and-forth process to bridge the very wide gap between the parties.”
Talal al-Barazi, the governor of Homs, said to The Independent at the start of the week that an agreement was in place under which women, children and men under 15 or over 55 could leave. Civilians remaining inside the Old City would receive what aid they wanted. The number of civilians is not known precisely but the UN believes it is between 2,500 and 3,000. Some 30 wounded would be treated. Syrian fighters can give up their weapons, reconcile with the government and go where they want. The UN says that there are not many foreign jihadi fighters inside the Old City unlike further north in Syria. This has eased negotiations.
Mr El Hilla said the UN had been in touch with rebels leaders in the Old City by phone and Skype. He revealed that the rebel commanders had all made commitments in writing to abide by the terms of the peace agreement. Other sources say there are some 30 armed groups within the besieged area which had made negotiations difficult in the past.
Some at least of the rebels are determine to continue fighting if an attack on the government-held Bab al-Sebaa district by rebels using a tunnel on Tuesday is anything to go by. They are reported to have taken three buildings, but were driven back after more than six hours of artillery barrages by the Syrian Army.
Mr El Hillo said he wanted to emphasise strongly that Homs Old City is not the only siege or blockade in Syria. In other places, such as the rebel siege of two Shia towns, al-Zahraa and Nubl, over 50,000 people are isolated and without resources. The UN had “totally failed to reach 200,000 displaced people in the Kurdish-dominated Hasakeh province in north east Syria. Parts of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus are also cut off. On the other hand, the UN Relief and Works Agency has been able to deliver substantial food aid to 18,000 Palestinians in Yarmouk Camp in south Damacus.
Implementation of the agreement over Homs Old City is important because it is the first time that peace talks have achieved anything on the ground. Mr El Hillo speaks hopefully of other truces and ceasefires in Syria. Another reason for guarded optimism is that Syria yesterday announced that it would be returning to Geneva for the second round of peace talks on 10 February. Overall, Mr El Hillo said “this is a clumsy conflict with no predictability to it.”
Elsewhere, the civil war continues apace. A rebel assault on a prison in Aleppo on Thursday, which began with a massive suicide bombing, saw hundreds of prisoners freed. There were conflicting reports on the nationality of a suicide bomber, who made way for the subsequent assault by blowing open the gates of the prison.
London-based terrorism expert Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College in London, claimed to have made contact with British citizens known to be in Syria, who confirmed to him that a man known as Abu Suleiman al Britani carried out the suicide bombing. The man was said to belong to the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Other reports suggested a Chechen suicide bomber belonging was behind the blast. According to one account the rebels were unable to breach the inner wall of the prison and eventually retreated under air attack.
The rebels need a victory on the ground to show that they have not been permanently weakened by the intra-rebel civil war between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) against most of the others. Isis is still dominant east of Aleppo and contests territory, including vital supply routes to Turkey, north of the city. It would be a serious blow to them if many of the fighters inside the Old City of Homs accepted government terms and gave up their weapons in return for a pardon.