Syrian rebels depart Homs district under deal

Buildings along a street in Homs in January. Credit Yazan Homsy/Reuters

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The last remaining insurgent fighters in the Old City of Homs in central Syria began evacuating on Wednesday morning, antigovernment activists and state media said, under a deal that would hand the highly symbolic district to the military after two years of blockades and bombardments.

The deal, hammered out between security officials and rebel representatives with the participation of Iran’s ambassador to Damascus, was viewed by both sides as a turning point — for government supporters a glimmer of hope for a return to normal life, and for opponents a bitter, if increasingly expected, defeat in what was once called “the capital of the revolution.”

Insurgents in Aleppo Province, to the north, will lift their longstanding blockade of two villages under the terms of the agreement, activists briefed by rebel negotiators said. If the deal holds, it could be the most complex and far-reaching yet struck between combatants in a three-year conflict that has taken more than 150,000 lives.

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About 2,000 people, mainly fighters and their families, were expected to travel to rebel-held areas in northern Homs Province in bus convoys escorted by United Nations vehicles, spokesmen for the insurgents said. The deal allowed each fighter to take one bag and their individual light weapons, and one rocket-propelled grenade launcher was permitted per bus.

Bulldozers cleared rubble and barricades to allow convoys into and out of the Old City. Fighters, some with backpacks, others covering their faces with kaffiyehs, could be seen boarding buses accompanied by a United Nations car, in a video posted by activists, as men in vests labeled “police” looked on.

The buses, with their blinds drawn, were trailed by motorcycles and battered cars in another video that showed the arrival of the first two busloads of fighters in Dar al-Kabira, said an activist who gave his name as Abu Shihab. After the fighters, some carrying rifles, moved from the buses to open-backed trucks, one insurgent shouted to a crowd, “May God not forgive the neglectful people who let us down. We lost Homs.”

In a twist that frustrated many government opponents, the cooperation of insurgents in Aleppo, who had none of their own fighters at stake, suggested a level of cross-province coordination that was absent for months as those trapped and starving in Homs begged for assistance.

The government hopes to showcase Homs as proof that it can settle the conflict through local negotiations, obviating the need for international peace talks ahead of elections in June, which President Bashar al-Assad is widely expected to win and opponents call a charade. The country’s tourism minister even predicted “a prosperous tourist season” for the province.

Some insurgents wept and kissed the ground as they left; graffiti on a wall read, “When I leave, be sure that I did my best to stay.”

“It’s over, but jihad will continue,” one fighter, asking to be identified only by his nom de guerre, Abu Bilal, said in a recent interview as the negotiations neared to a close. His voice then softened as he spoke of the garden he was about to leave behind in the Old City – turnips, cabbage, zucchini, beans and pumpkins planted in soil hauled to a rooftop, some still too small to eat.

“Today I picked my last tomato,” he said. “I will miss many things here, not only the plants.”

The exodus, he said, was “not the regime’s fault – it was the request of the people and the fighters, because of the world’s betrayal.”

Homs was one of the first cities to hold large demonstrations against Mr. Assad’s government in early 2011. Protesters there were among the first to take up arms, and the government first used heavy artillery there, on the Baba Amr neighborhood, in early 2012.

The Old City, a diverse labyrinth of mosques, churches and stone arches overlooked by a medieval citadel, was long controlled by insurgents. In years of intense battle that devastated much of the area, the government retook all but a few neighborhoods, blockading the rest and forcing those inside to subsist on grass and whatever else they could grow.

In February, more than 1,500 people, civilians and some fighters, were evacuated under a short-lived truce and a small amount of food was allowed in. Some of those who left are still detained in a government shelter, and hundreds more have been released after required security checks.

Many decamped to Waer, the only insurgent-held area remaining in the city, where an estimated 200,000 people displaced from other areas are crammed. Early reports that the deal would include a cease-fire with Waer did not materialize.

Once the evacuation is complete, the military will clear the area of mines planted by the insurgents, who were to provide the location of the devices, and unexploded ordnance from government bombardment.

Abu Helmi, an activist in Waer, said that a small number of Christian civilians who remained throughout the blockade planned to stay, but no Sunnis, underscoring the sectarian divides that have reshaped the city.

In recent days, smoke rose over the old city as insurgents burned some buildings and headquarters before their departure, according to a government soldier and an opposition activist.

The soldier, reached by phone, said that the insurgents were adhering to the cease-fire and “making no troubles.” He said he and his comrades, while remaining on alert, felt relaxed enough to play cards and drink matte, a popular herbal drink, during their breaks. “Let them be kicked out and let us relax,” he said. “I want to go back to Damascus. I miss my parents.”

Antigovernment activists said they feared the deal would clear the way for a government assault on the last insurgent-held areas in northern Homs Province, the destination of the Old City fighters.

“It could be a solution for besieged Homs, but it’s the beginning of the tragedy for the rest of the countryside,” said Samer, an activist in the northern town of Houla.

Some fighters elsewhere were enraged by the deal. “Damn their honor,” said Abed, a fighter with the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham in Aleppo province. “We should burn this regime, not sign a deal with them – liar regime,” he said. “When the last holy warrior dies, then we will agree.”

Using sectarian slurs, he said that the people of Nubol and Zahra, the villages where insurgents are to lift their siege, deserved to be “slaughtered” rather than fed because they are members of the Shiite minority, like Mr. Assad’s allies Hezbollah and the leadership of Iran.

The deal carries political risks for the government as well. Pro-government militia members and other core government supporters were angry about the February evacuations, which they said benefited fighters who had shelled and bombed their districts.

State media on Wednesday spoke of “the evacuation of the gunmen of the Old City,” forgoing the usual broad-brush label of “terrorists” for the armed opposition, perhaps because government supporters could find it hard to justify allowing men labeled terrorists to escape.

Mustafa Aboud, a local official in a government-held Homs district that was hit last week, not for the first time, by a car bomb, was one of those.

But in a recent interview he said he welcomed the cease-fire and anything that would end the fighting in Homs.

“I’m listening to birds singing,” he said, holding his phone to the air so it could pick up the sound, as well as the absence of gunfire. But rumors of car bombs can still empty the streets in minutes, he said. “I don’t say there’s rain until I see it,” Mr. Aboud said.

In northern Homs, one antigovernment activist, Wael, said his family had cooked the night before for three evacuated fighters, friends he was now hosting – light meals, “until their bodies get used to food.”

When they arrived, he said, they looked thin and tired, and ate a salad.

“One of them took the tomato, kissed it and put it aside,” he said, saying, “I’ll sleep next to this piece of tomato. I haven’t seen one in a year.”