On the Ground: the al-Waar Truce
Two weeks ago, on 1 December, a “truce” was agreed between the Syrian regime and the people of al-Waar (a large suburban district on the edge of Homs city). The last centre held by opposition forces in the Homs area, al-Waar once had a population of 300, 000 but today only about 75 000 remain. Many of al-Waar’s residents are evacuees from Homs Old Town who were allowed to leave that district under a previous agreement in May 2014. For the past 19 months the district has been under siege and bombardment by the Syrian regime, with the entry of both food and medical supplies severely curtailed.
The truce agreement is due to be implemented in three stages, the first of which began on 9 December. It seems that that its main provisions are:
1.A ceasefire (which presumably means that regime forces will cease their bombing, shelling and sniping at targets in the district; while opposition fighters will stop offensive operations against the Syrian army);
- Opening of the main checkpoint leading into the town and admission of essential humanitarian aid ‑ food and medical supplies.
- The release of prisoners and detainees held by both sides.
- The evacuation of vulnerable people – children, the elderly and those in need of urgent medical treatment.
In order to facilitate the truce it was agreed that those fighters unwilling to accept its terms would be allowed to leave the city securely with their light (and some medium )weapons and travel to opposition controlled areas in Idlib and Hama. Fighters who are prepared to observe the truce can remain (at least for the time being) with their weapons.
It’s clear that the UN was heavily involved in mediating and implementing this agreement. It was overseen by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Yacoub El-Hillo, and a senior aide of UN Special envoy on Syria Stefan de Mistura (de Mistura himself appears to have been in the city a few days previously) and videos show dozens of white UN vehicles escorting Red Crescent lorries bringing humanitarian aid in and buses taking vulnerable civilians and some fighters out of the city.
The first step in the truce was taken on 6 December when a large aid convoy was allowed to enter the city as a “confidence building” measure). This was followed three days later by the formal commencement of the truce and departure of approximately 1000 people – 300 fighters , 400 family members, and a further 300 vulnerable evacuees.
“Al-Waar will retain its revolutionary character”
However the bulk of the district’s current population of 75 000 are remaining including some 3 – 5000 fighters, who retain their weapons. Local inhabitants are adamant that the fighters must stay in order to guarantee the security of this oppositional community. As one fighter told Syria Direct
We won’t leave and abandon our families to become a target for the shabiha’s hatred … the truce we recognize is one that allows rebels to stay in the neighbourhood to protect civilians. In that case, we’ll abide by all conditions including a ceasefire.
According to Syria Direct the text of the agreement provides for two further stages, each 25 days apart. In these two stages opposition fighters will surrender their heavy weapons, and part of their medium ones, in exchange for the release of 5000 detainees.
This understanding of the agreement was underlined in a series of reports and interviews posted on You Tube by the Homs Media Centre:
The agreement is a ceasefire, not mass immigration. Population and fighters for the most part have chosen to stay. Bombing will stop, military engagements will stop, but fighters will stay.
The Ceasefire is purely humanitarian but won’t have political effect. All revolutionary brigades remain and the area is not going to be under the control of the regime as it is alleging. We just had to make some concessions to get vital humanitarian support.
(Acknowledgement: My thanks to Yasmine Nahlawi of Rethink Rebuild Society for translating the videos)
This view also appears to be endorsed by the United Nations: UN Humanitarian Coordinator El-Hillo confirmed in a statement to Reuters, “All the options are there. For fighters wishing to continue being opponents but without allowing for this to take the neighbourhood back to where it came from, that (option) is there,”
The Syrian regime, however, seems to be singing from a rather different hymn-sheet.
The State news agency SANA, reported Homs Governor Talal al- Barazi, who negotiated the agreement from the regime side, as follows:
During the second stage, al-Barazi said, the gunmen willing to go back to their normal lives will have their legal status settled, noting that all state institutions will go back to work in the neighbourhood in the course of the second and third stages.
By the end of the third stage, al-Waar neighbourhood will be clear of weapons and gunmen and under the full control of the state, according to the Governor. (my emphasis)This phrase of Barazi’s has become the formula that pro-regime sources routinely employ to describe the truce.
The confusion is compounded by a report from BBC journalist Lise Doucet who was in al-Waar for the start of the truce. Writing in The Observer of 13 December she states, “the ceasefire’s detailed document makes it clear that security will now be in the hands of the Homs General Intelligence Branch and the civil police. The return of the Syrian security service to al –Waar is certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the agreement (and one is left wondering if there may not be two different texts of the agreement in existence).
In a press release issued on 11 December the UN made it clear that it regards the al-Waar truce as the first fruit of the Vienna process, quoting de Mistura: “initiatives like this one bring relief to besieged or isolated communities and have great value … They help the perception that a nationwide ceasefire brokered by the members of the ISSG is doable and that the UN can and will do its part.”
However the role of the UN in this event has been dubious at best. The first thing that must be said is that it is quite shameful that the UN should have been party to a process that made the receipt of humanitarian aid by an acutely deprived community conditional. Not only is the receipt of such aid a basic human right but the Vienna declaration explicitly states “pursuant to clause 5 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG discussed the need to take steps to ensure expeditious humanitarian access throughout the territory of Syria pursuant to UNSCR 2165 and called for the granting of the UN’s pending requests for humanitarian deliveries.”
Having been blockaded for some 4 months, there must surely have been a humanitarian delivery “pending” for al-Waar – why then did its residents of have to submit to further delays and to make a series of concessions to the regime before relief was provided?
It seems that the UN in this instance was motivated by an overriding desire to chalk up a “victory” for Stefan de Mistura’s long standing plan of securing local cease fires, even if it meant downplaying the rights of 75 000 people. (It must however be granted that the UN took its responsibilities in the implementation of the accord seriously, providing a security escort for the convoy of evacuees moving from the city to other areas).
The second observation is that the UN has presided over the drafting of a very ambiguous agreement without publishing either the text or a substantive summary of it provisions. This opens the way for the regime to abuse the process and push the more far-reaching conditions that it is has openly announced. Far from being a model for securing a nationwide ceasefire, al-Waar has all the potential to become a classic example of how NOT to mediate in a deep conflict situation. Only time will tell.
But it won’t take much time. The second phase of the Al-Waar truce is due to begin in the first week of January. That will coincide approximately with the exhaustion of the supplies delivered at the start of the siege, so we will have a clear test at that point of the intentions of the regime and the capacity of the United Nations to meet its obligations to the people of al-Waar, and of Syria.
12 December 2015: Al Waar residents remind a visiting high level UN delegation of Security Council Resolutions 2139 and 2165 (prohibiting attacks on civilian populations and calling for the free flow of humanitarian aid)