Homs back in Syrian government hands as rebels evacuated
Handover of Old City a serious defeat for opposition
Newly-released forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are greeted by their comrades after their release by rebels in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr. Photograph: Reuters
The evacuation of 1,200 insurgents from the Old City of Homs began yesterday with the transfer of several hundred fighters to opposition-held towns north of the country’s third city and former industrial hub, besieged since June 2012.
The departure of the fighters has great symbolic significance to both sides as the city was dubbed by the opposition as the “capital of the revolution” begun in 2011. The handover of the Old City amounts to a serious defeat for the opposition and a politico-military victory for the government at the outset of the campaign for the June 3rd presidential election, expected to be won by incumbent Bashar al-Assad.
The operation was briefly suspended and resumed after insurgents blocked aid deliveries to two pro-government Shia towns in Aleppo province. Under the evacuation agreement, insurgents are to permit aid to reach Nubol and Zahraa, which have a combined population of 45,000. Hostages are also to be released, including, it is said, pro-government Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas, a Russian and several Iranians captured by the Saudi-sponsored Islamic Front. It is estimated northern insurgent brigades hold as many as 1,000 prisoners and hostages, including westerners.
The deal, delayed for several weeks because of fresh fighting, allows gunmen, with light arms and personal belongings, to leave for the towns of Talbisa and Dar al-Kabira, 20km from Homs. There were wounded among the evacuees and some family members. Almost all civilians along with some fighters – a total of 1,400 people – left the Old City during a February ceasefire.
Iran’s ambassador in Damascus, Mohamed Reza Rouf Sheibani, appears to have had a hand in finalising the deal, forged by Syrian reconciliation minister Ali Haidar and Homs governor Talal Barzani, along with leaders of the four main insurgent factions in the Old City.
Concern among evacuees
UN personnel and representatives of the Russian and Iranian embassies monitored the bus convoys.
Videos posted by opposition activists showed fighters entering buses with blinds drawn, leaving and then arriving at Dar al-Kabira where one shouted: “May God not forgive the neglectful people who let us down. We lost Homs.”
There is concern among evacuees that the towns where they have found refuge could come under siege as the army advances northwards in Homs province and escalates its campaign to wrest quarters of Aleppo from insurgents.
All fighters in the Old City were Syrians, including members of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Non-Syrian jihadis, because they do not get an amnesty from Damascus and their home countries, threaten to prosecute them on their return.