After three years of battle, the revolution is over in Homs
BEIRUT // Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels on Wednesday left their last remaining bastions in the central city of Homs under a ceasefire deal with government forces.
The exit of about 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against Bashar Al Assad’s rule, earning it the nickname of “capital of the revolution.”
Gaining control of Syria’s third-largest city is a major win for Mr Al Assad on multiple levels. Militarily, it solidifies the government hold on a swath of territory in central Syria, linking the capital Damascus with government strongholds along the coast and giving a staging ground to advance against rebel territory further north.
Politically, gains on the ground boost Mr Al Assad’s hold on power as he seeks to add a further claim of legitimacy in presidential elections set for June 3.
By early Wednesday evening, about 600 fighters had boarded several batches of buses that departed from a police command centre on the edge of Homs’ rebel-held areas, heading north, opposition activists said. Many of the rebels were wounded, and it was unclear how many civilians were among them.
An activist who goes by the name of Abu Yassin Al Homsi said all fighters and any remaining civilians would leave the city by the end of the day. According to the deal, the rebels were being taken a few kilometres north to the rebel-held towns of Talbiseh and Al Dar Al Kabira on the northern edge of Homs province.
Mr Al Homsi said each fighter was allowed to carry his rifle and a bag of belongings. One rocket-propelled-grenade launcher and a machinegun were also allowed on each bus, he said.
“We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response,” Mr Al Homsi said. “We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege.”
The evacuation appeared to be taking place in an organised manner with no violations by either side. The governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, confirmed that the rebels had started leaving the old districts. State TV said government forces would enter the evacuated neighbourhoods once the rebels had left.
The rebels will retain one toe-hold in Homs. Fighters in the Waer district, just outside Homs’ Old City, have so far refused to join the evacuation. Some activists said negotiations were under way for a similar deal there.
The evacuation was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighborhoods in and around the historic quarters of Homs, where they had been holed up under siege for more than a year.
The siege by government forced caused severe shortages of food and medicine, and heavy bombardment blasted the rebel-held areas. A first major group – about 1,400 people, including fighters and residents – were evacuated earlier this year in a UN-mediated operation.
The last die-hards held out for weeks. But they agreed last Friday to the ceasefire deal, leading the way to evacuation.
In exchange for their evacuation, activists say opposition fighters will allow aid into two northern pro-government villages, Nubul and Zahra, besieged by rebels for more than a year.
A small hiccup emerged in that part of the multifaceted deal after one hardline rebel group closed a road to prevent aid from reaching the villages, causing a brief suspension in evacuations from Homs.
The problem was resolved after opposition fighters from another faction opened an alternative route to the villages to let in aid, allowing the evacuations from Homs to resume, said Thaer Khalidiya, an activist from Homs who is now based in Turkey.
Also as part of the Homs deal, rebels will also release up to 70 pro-government gunmen and an Iranian woman they hold captive in the northern city of Aleppo, several activists said.
An activist said that among those released by the rebels was a group of people captured in the coastal province of Latakia, a government stronghold, where opposition fighters seized dozens of women and children in an offensive in August.
He said rebels also released 15 soldiers they were holding in Aleppo province.
* Associated Press
Published: May 8, 2014 04:00 AM