What does the Homs truce mean for Syria?

Rebels begin evacuation of Homs
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Story highlights

  • Homs truce, and the evacuation of rebels, is significant
  • Homs was, for a long time, the epicenter of the revolution
  • This deal seems to have Russian and Iranian input
  • It also shows negotiations can be fruitful

A truce between Syrian government and rebel forces in the strategic and symbolic city of Homs has gone into effect, allowing the evacuation of opposition fighters and their families from the Old City. The ancient city of Homs became known as the capital of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It has experienced some of the worst of the violence in a bloody civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead and driven millions of people from their homes across the country.

How significant is the truce?

This is certainly a very significant development on several levels. First, the regime has been pushing to expel rebels from the central part of the country and the area close to the Lebanese border. The battles for al-Qusair, the Qalamoun Mountains with Yabroud and Maloula, and now Homs itself showed how important the government feels this area is.

On the one hand it gives the regime de facto control over a large and coherent chunk of the country that stretches from Damascus up the highway to Homs and then all the way to the Syrian coast with towns like Latakia and Tartous. With that the regime has secured its route for logistics and also a possible retreat should it become under pressure in Damascus.

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For the rebels the truce is significant for other reasons. Homs was one of the first places where they were able to hold larger swaths of territory. The uprising in the city began with grassroots demonstrations for democracy and only defectors from the Syrian army took up arms there.

There were far fewer Islamists in Homs than in many other places affected by the uprising against al-Assad. So in many ways Homs was, for a long time, the epicenter of the revolution and also the cradle of the Free Syrian Army.

In the end, however, the rebels were encircled there and confined to the Old Town, the al-Waer area, Talbiseh in the north of the city and a few other pockets. They were besieged and could barely get supplies at all. The truce, if they make it out safely, is probably the best outcome for them.

On a diplomatic front it is also very important because it is a large scale truce that actually seems to be working and both Russia and Iran appear to have been involved in the process.

Furthermore, it is a very complex deal that involves rebel fighters getting free passage in return for the release of pro-regime prisoners in a totally different part of the country (the Aleppo area), as well as aid being allowed into besieged pro-Assad areas also in Syria's north, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

It shows that larger-scale negotiations can be fruitful if all sides want solutions, even in light of the diplomatic failures in the past and the fractured state of the opposition.

Is this the first time that a truce has ever been brokered in the Syria conflict?

It is certainly the largest regional truce that has ever been brokered and gone into effect, but it is not the first. As early as 2013 pro-government politicians and rebel commanders were brokering local cease-fires in Homs province. We visited the town of Tal Kalakh on the border with Lebanon in March 2013, which at the time was held by the opposition, but encircled by al-Assad's forces.

Regional leaders had brokered a truce between the two sides though that allowed at least some semblance of public life to return to the area.

On the whole, I believe these cease-fires show that in many places, the Syrian population is far ahead of the politicians, rebels and the military that claim to represent them. Many want the fighting to stop and they certainly do not want Syrians to continue killing other Syrians. But that does not mean that an end to the conflict is in any way near.

What does this mean for the broader Syrian conflict?

The conflict is nowhere near a solution. The fighting is worse than ever in Aleppo, where the Syrian army continues to use weapons like barrel bombs and other heavy ordinance and the rebels are also pushing to win ground, also using artillery and the like. No side is willing to back down at this point. Bashar al-Assad seems to feel that the momentum is on his side and said exactly that in a recent interview. The regime feels it is a fairly comfortable position and is also pounding the rebels in the outskirts of Damascus.

Meanwhile the rebels are still divided, but also making gains in certain areas. A much overlooked place is the south of the country around Deraa, where the opposition has been making inroads near the important highway to Damascus. The anti-Assad groups in the south of the country appear to be the most disciplined and politically and religiously moderate of all.

They are also getting regular supplies of weapons via the border with Jordan. In the north of the country, the picture is patchier. The advent of the Islamic Front as a new fighting force has certainly done much to consolidate the opposition there.

Right now the main players are Islamic Front, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the most radical group, the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which is at war with most of the other rebel groups.

There still is a lot of rebel infighting, but the Islamic Front and Nusra have recently made gains in the Aleppo area and also in Latakia province, the ancestral homeland of Bashar al-Assad.

Does this show that Bashar al-Assad is winning?

Bashar al-Assad is winning in certain places but losing ground in others. He is making gains around Damascus and in Homs and its outlying areas. There is a bloody stalemate in the Aleppo area. The rebels are making gains in the northwest in Latakia province and also in the south.

What appears to be going on is that al-Assad is carving out a heartland that stretches from the capital Damascus via Homs to the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing Latakia and Tartous to give him access to ports. The main focus of the Syrian military in the past year has been the battle for Damascus, for the Damascus to Homs highway and Homs itself.

But al-Assad is not even close to winning the civil war. No one is. If anything, the current situation seems to show that there cannot be a military solution to this conflict.

We have heard so much about the destruction in Homs, what is it really like there?

Homs is a tragedy. The first traces of civilization there go back to around 2000 BC and now much of it is being destroyed. We were able to visit the Baba Amr district which was one of the places that the opposition held, but which the government won back in 2012.

The scene there is tragic. We were not able to find a single building that was not totally destroyed. People were slowly starting to come back, but it does not seem like life is possible there at the moment. The same was also true, until now, of the old town. The closer you got to the front line, the more destruction you would see.

The fighting that was going on there in the end was typical urban warfare with government soldiers and rebels fighting for every house, punching holes through walls for safe access and command centers set up in destroyed apartments. Until recently you could hear gunfire in Homs almost around the clock.

The bizarre thing about that situation was that just a block or two further down the road you would never have known that there had been fighting. All the building were intact, there were people on the streets in cafes and kebab shops and the shops were well stocked.

In many cases it seems that people were making an extra effort to give their lives some normalcy, but of course all of them have been touched by the conflict in some way.