The evacuation of rebel fighters from the Old City of Homs is being widely portrayed as major victory for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Rather incredulously, some in the opposition are even claiming it as a win for their own side. The truth is, given the scenes of utter devastation witnessed by the media and returning residents, it is grotesque to describe this as a victory for anybody.
Overall, the deal struck between the regime and rebels benefits the former more than it does the latter, but it is not the resounding triumph that Assad and his supporters are portraying it to be. The fact that an agreement was negotiated may indicate that the regime did not think it could retake the Old City militarily, or at least not without heavy casualties, particularly given the number of rebel fighters that withdrew (estimated at up to 2,000).
For the past two years, Homs had been subjected to continuous siege and bombardment by the regime. This included what Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin described in February 2012 as “shelling with impunity, with merciless disregard for civilians”. She was killed by that same shelling the following day. Despite major military operations by the regime, a stalemate in Homs persisted until last year, when Lebanese Hezbollah fighters came to Assad’s aid.
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It is arguably a testament to the will of the rebels there that they withstood the siege and bombings as long as they did. The deal struck entailed their peaceful and orderly evacuationto opposition-held territory. They were allowed to keep light arms, but had to abandon heavier weaponry. This means that they will be able to fight another day if they so choose.
The agreement was certainly enabled by their war-weariness. However, part of Assad’s motivation was to provide aid to besieged pro-regime villages in the north – Nubul and Zahra – and to secure the release of 70 rebel-held prisoners. Thus, the deal was not struck from a position of unparalleled regime strength. Rather, it was a tit for tat.
However, the fall of Homs is certainly a blow to the opposition. The third-largest city in Syria – and one of great strategic, economic and geographic importance – it was regarded as the “capital of the revolution”. Homs was “once associated with scenes of joyous pro-democracy crowds” that “electrified the nation”, and led to anti-Assad demonstrations “in every major city”, wrote Reuters correspondent Marwan Makdesi.
The deal highlights the divisions between opposition groups and their inadequate supplies, in the face of a regime that is bolstered militarily by its foreign allies. Fighters in Homs had reportedly complained that other rebels had failed to come to their rescue.
Negotiation is possible
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this deal is that it is not the only one being struck between opposition groups and the regime in various parts of the country. Furthermore, this particular one was mediated by the Iranian and Russian ambassadors to Syria – staunch allies of Assad – and the evacuation was supervised by the UN. It will reportedly be followed by a similar withdrawal from the district of al-Wair, the last remaining rebel hold-out in Homs.
“The agreements that you’re seeing… are evidence of what can be done,” said John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This could be interpreted as a sign of exhaustion on both sides after more than three years of brutal conflict, and a mutual realisation that outright military victory is not possible.
After all, despite a string of regime successes on the battlefield since Hezbollah fighters entered the conflict last year, and despite increased rebel infighting, Assad’s forces are still under pressure in much of the country, including his own heartland of Latakia, and Syria’s largest city Aleppo. As such, the overall situation resembles a stalemate whose end is not on the horizon.
An account of the resulting fatigue comes from BBC Middle East correspondent Paul Wood, citing a “well-informed source” regarding a truce in Yalda. “Negotiations that both sides had expected to conclude in days, if at all, were all over in two hours with everything agreed,” wrote Wood. “According to my source, both sides looked at each other, and realised how much they had lost. They wept and hugged. There was relief that it was over.”
This may serve as a poignant reminder that deep down – despite the anger, violence and divided loyalties – Syrians share a profound sense of personal and national loss. However, local truces alone will not bring lasting relief. This will only come about with a nationwide settlement. Sadly, with the utter failure of the Geneva process, and next month’s farcical “elections“, this seems as remote as ever.
The Homs deal, and others, show that despite the rhetoric and the gulf between them, the warring sides and their foreign backers are capable of negotiating, and doing so with results, albeit only on military matters. If only as much genuine effort was put into an overall diplomatic solution to which all sides continue to pay lip service.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye. He is the recipient of an award from the International Media Council “for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting” on the Middle East.