BEIRUT: Fighters remaining inside besieged Old Homs and human rights workers say they fear an imminent government military onslaught aimed at eliminating the rebel-stronghold after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire and evacuation deal concludes.
Over 1,400 people, mostly civilians, have been evacuated from Old Homs since last Friday after an agreement was reached with the Syrian government to provide humanitarian access to the neighborhoods, besieged for over 18 months.
Some 2,500 people were believed to have been holed up in Old Homs, one of the last rebel-bastions remaining in the city after government forces retook most of the city in mid-2013.
Those evacuated have relayed tales of desperate conditions under siege, eating grass, cats and boiled water to survive.
Under the deal, civilians were permitted to leave the neighborhoods, and some aid was allowed in. But the government has detained some 300 military aged men for questioning over “crimes” or on suspicion of involvement in combat operations against regime forces. Their detention has been condemned by human rights groups and U.N. agencies as a breach of the humanitarian principles underlining the agreement.
With the cease-fire, already extended twice, now due to expire Saturday, some 1,500 people remain inside the city, many of them rebels or families of rebels who are unwilling or unable to leave, because they fear arrest or are reluctant to leave their families.
The conditions of the deal have led some fighters inside Old Homs to conclude that the evacuation amounted to no more than a tightening of the siege against the rebels remaining, as part of a broader military strategy aimed to eliminate them.
One opposition fighter inside Old Homs told The Daily Star this week he was unwilling to risk arrest by leaving, despite fearing an imminent government assault.
“Now regime forces will storm Old Homs, [strike with] explosive barrels and toxic chemicals to kill everyone,” he said, adding that it was “bitterly cold – break your bones cold,” in the Old City.
“Then they will intervene to claim that they have controlled the situation completely.”
He claimed regime forces had been reinforced outside the Old City, something The Daily Star could not verify.
“I will stay in Homs to die,” the fighter said.
Fighters battling Assad forces in the nearby Qalamoun region south of Homs told The Daily Star those inside the Old City, anticipating an onslaught, had requested assistance.
“The regime will launch a big attack, claiming there are no longer civilians there,” said Abu Hussein, leading a rebel Free Syrian Army battalion in rural Homs.
“They can’t do any more than what they already did. I think some battalions were trying to do something [to resist], but they are too late now.”
Abu Hussein said the fighters inside Old Homs, with “no choice” but to fight on, had requested military assistance.
“They have a few weapons. They requested everything, but we had nothing to give them and no way to get them there.”
“But they are very good fighters. They have been training for three years,” he added.
A senior U.N. official in Beirut acknowledged the regime would likely attack after the cease-fire deal, but pointed to the need to protect civilians, who had chosen to leave according to humanitarian principles.
“The regime will obliterate them. It’s a matter of when, not if,” the official said.
A Syrian Arab Red Crescent emergency worker told The Daily Star she wasn’t sure “if we are even doing the right thing anymore.”
In a press briefing after addressing the U.N. Security Council Thursday, Valerie Amos, the world body’s emergency relief coordinator and undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, outlined the “modest” achievements of the Homs operation but said it could not be seen as a model for success.
“While remarkable, the events in the Old City cannot serve as a model. Why? It was a success, given the difficult circumstances, but I find it difficult to describe as progress.
“This is not only about the Old City of Homs. There are millions of people in dire need across Syria, their lives hanging in the balance, she said urging the Security Council members to “do everything they can” to influence parties to the conflict to abide by cease-fires, give sustained access, commit to humanitarian law and prevent emergency workers from being shot at while delivering aid.
“All parties are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians. We understand that a war is going on. But even wars have rules,” she said.
Nadim Houry, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, agreed, and said there were concerns expressed that the government would resume an intense bombing and shelling campaign against those remaining after the evacuation. He cautioned that civilians, and not just combatants, remained in the neighborhood and called for guarantees for their protection.
“This happens all the time in conflict,” he said, “it happened with the Israelis in Lebanon, where the cease-fires are used as an excuse [to bomb and shell those remaining behind].”
“There are many civilians inside Old Homs who are unable to leave or unwilling to leave, because they are handicapped, or afraid, or don’t want to be separated from their families,” he said.
“Just because you gave people a choice to leave, you still have an obligation to protect civilians – and you can’t be sure everybody inside are combatants,” Houry said, adding that he had “no indication or reports that civilians inside had been prevented from leaving.”