By Ellen Francis
REBELS and their families began leaving their last bastion in the Syrian city of Homs on Saturday, state media and a Reuters witness said, under a Russian-backed deal with the government expected to be among the largest evacuations of its kind.
The agreement underlines Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s upper hand in the war, as more rebel fighters opt to leave areas they have defended for years in deals that amount to negotiated withdrawals to other parts of the country.
Buses drove out of the al-Waer district in Homs, which was an early centre of the popular uprising against Assad.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 rebels and civilians would evacuate in batches over the coming weeks under the deal, according to opposition activists in al-Waer and a war monitor.
Homs governor Talal Barazi told Reuters that he expected 1,500 people, including at least 400 fighters, to depart on Saturday for rebel-held areas northeast of Aleppo, and that most of al-Waer’s residents would stay.
“The preparations and the reality on the ground indicate that things will go well,” Barazi said.
The Syrian government has described such deals as a “workable model” that brings the country closer to peace after six years of conflict. But the opposition decries them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people who oppose Assad after years of bombardment and siege.
Along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Russian and Syrian forces were overseeing the evacuation, which would take about six weeks, Barazi said.
“We are optimistic that the full exit of armed (fighters) from this district will pave the way for other reconciliations and settlements,” Barazi added.
“There is ongoing communication with” other rebel-held areas north of Homs city to reach similar deals, including the towns of al-Rastan and Talbiseh, he said.
The government has increasingly tried to press besieged rebel areas to surrender and accept what it calls reconciliation agreements.
In an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix last week, Assad said deals brokered locally with rebels were “the real political solutions”. He added that he had not expected anything from Geneva, where U.N.-led peace talks ended this month with no breakthrough.
Broadcasting live from the al-Waer departure area, Syrian state television spoke to a Russian colonel, who said via an interpreter that security would soon return to the district.