Rebels Bite the Bullet in Homs, Vow to Fight Assad Another Day

As the regime all but completes takeover of Syria's third major city, some insurgents blame jihadists for holding up their departure and humanitarian relief to besieged towns.

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The old city of Homs, May 8, 2014.
The old city of Homs, May 8, 2014.Credit: AP

HOMS, SYRIA — Wednesday was to be the end of the long siege for over 1,200 rebels, including some of their family members, who in two stages were to leave the old Roman city of Homs, once called the “heart of the Syrian Revolution.” It was for all but about 200 of them.

These remaining fighters are spending their last night inside Homs, angry, disappointed, blaming the Al-Qaida-linked jihadists Jabhat al-Nusra for it. They were on buses in a convoy together with humanitarian aid workers, a few kilometers away from their freedom, when they were told to return back to the wreckage of the city.

In exchange for their freedom, the rebels have released 29 Syrian Army soldiers and 55 civilians taken on August 4, 2013 from the outskirts of Latakia. The release of a 70-year-old Iranian woman, a Homs resident, was also part of the deal. Under the deal, a humanitarian corridor was also set up to supply eight locales north of Aleppo, including the Shi’ite towns Nubl and Zahra, where over 70,000 civilians have been locked in for almost two years.

The deal allowed free access for humanitarian workers into eight towns in the north of Aleppo that have been under siege by Jabhat al-Nusra rebels. Fourteen trucks, together with the buses carrying the rebels, made the journey Wednesday as scheduled, but failed to enter the towns because of the jihadists' refusal. Following all-night contacts, it was then agreed to allow the convoy free passage.  

But on Thursday the vehicles got as far as two kilometers from the towns  Nubl and Zahra when they were told to turn back. The convoy leader, after consultation with the Homs command center, led all the trucks and buses back to Homs. Later in the day the Islamic Front, an alliance of organizations unconnected to Al-Qaida, said it would allow humanitarian aid to enter areas controlled by President Bashar Assad's forces. It wasn't clear, though, if Jabhat al-Nusra would go along with this decision.

Meanwhile, the last crowd of rebels will be cooling their heels in Homs until Friday. But then they will be gone. It is too early to say that the revolution has lost its heart. The rebels agreed to leave only to fight another day, in another location.

Who is the winner and who is the loser in this deal?

For the first time in over three years, we have seen a military operations room established outside the besieged city of Homs, where rebel commanders were coordinating with their fellow fighters in other areas under their control all the necessary elements to bring this deal to a successful conclusion. Next to these were Syrian Army generals supervising their share of the deal, coordinating with the United Nations and their command to ensure an agreement respected by all belligerents.

The UN team was called on to supervise the operation and act as an international guarantor, escorting the rebels until the demarcation line in Reef-Homs. Another mediation was orchestrated behind the scenes with regional players involved in Syria, contributing effectively to the success of this operation. Their role was effective in putting pressure on both the regime and the rebels to create a model of collaboration between the Syrian government and the rebels. This arrangement is not unlikely to be used again in the future.

Yacub al Helou, the UN Ambassador in Syria, said “the UN was supervising the operation and will continue doing so in other areas, like the al-Waer neighborhood in Homs.”

He confirmed that a “humanitarian convoy is reaching the eight locales in Aleppo as agreed, and the will of both sides is to bring the deal to a happy end to serve as a model for other possible future deals.”

There are more than 200,000 civilians and a substantial number of rebels in surrounded al-Waer, which was not included in the deal. 

The rebels say they are happy to leave and will meet Syrian troops elsewhere. “We are coming to get you again Bashar (al-Assad),” promised one of the departing rebels. Other battlefields are not lacking since the Syrian government controls slightly less than 50% of the territory.

On the other hand, the Syrian government is thrilled to see the third largest city in Syria returning to its control. Homs was full of traps, tunnels and improvised explosive devices, and the rebels were city inhabitants, intimate with every nook and cranny. An all-out battle would have been costly for both sides.

With Homs, Hama and the fighting in the Damascus suburb Al-Ghouta to render the capital “rebel-free,” it may be concluded that the main aim of the Syrian government is to hold the presidential election while claiming control of several major cities in Syria. Moreover, the regular troops supported by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters can now move from Homs to Dar al-Kabira and Rastan to fight the same rebels again and others, in a more open space. Also, the several thousand Syrian troops supported by Hezbollah can now dedicate more manpower to attack Aleppo.

The writer is an international journalist based in Syria and writing under a pseudonym.

A photo of Syria's President Bashar Assad in a street in old Homs city, May 8, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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