Evacuation of al-Waer a boost for Syrian government

First evacuations in two-month withdrawal plan hailed as victory for Damascus, Moscow

Members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent help some of the 300 civilians leaving the al-Waer neighbourhood, the last area under opposition control in central Homs, Syria, on Wednesday. Photograph: EPA/Syrian Arab News Agency

Members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent help some of the 300 civilians leaving the al-Waer neighbourhood, the last area under opposition control in central Homs, Syria, on Wednesday. Photograph: EPA/Syrian Arab News Agency

 

The belated evacuation of the al-Waer quarter of the central Syrian city of Homs amounts to a military, political and public relations boost for the Syrian government. It comes as opposition politicians and commanders of mainly fundamentalist armed groups meet in Saudi Arabia for discussions on a ceasefire and creation of a transition authority.

The evacuation of al-Waer, once a populous district of Syria’s third city, should have taken place in May 2014 at a time when elements of the Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra pulled out of the besieged old city of Homs. This did not happen. Government forces could not exert enough pressure on the insurgents to force them out.

The situation has changed since Russia’s war planes began striking insurgent targets in the Homs region on September 30th, enabling the army to exercise greater control of this central province and its major city, dubbed the “hub of the revolution” when unrest erupted in 2011.

Consequently, the first evacuations in the two-month withdrawal plan have been hailed as a victory for Damascus and Moscow. This plus other territorial gains near Aleppo and in the northwest and south could strengthen the government in talks with the opposition due to begin on January 1st.

The meeting in Riyadh, Damascus’s main antagonist, will be regarded a success if the Saudis achieve three tasks – but that will require the kingdom’s policy to change.

Participants from the Istanbul-based expatriate National Council and armed groups must be convinced to reach a consensus on a delegation and on a policy ahead of the talks. This would be a major achievement for the fractured opposition.

Role of Assad

Over the past four years, Saudi-backed groups have insisted Assad must step down ahead of the formation of a transition authority, while the US and Europe have gradually realised the Syrian state could crumble if Assad goes before the launch of the transition process.

Once that process is complete, the West contends Assad will have to depart, but the Saudis and their allies have not been convinced by western assurances that Assad’s time is limited.

If the western approach is accepted, the armed opposition must agree to ceasefires with government forces and give priority to the battle against Islamic State to the extent of coordinating with army ground troops.

The Saudis and their allies in turn must adjust to the evolution of western attitudes in light of recent Isis attacks, including in Paris last month.

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