BEIRUT: The Old City of Homs, the centerpiece of a precarious test case for humanitarian cease-fires to come out of the Geneva talks between the Syrian regime and its opponents, is seen as having the best possible conditions for a successful agreement between bitterly divided parties. Yet the in-principle agreement for the government to allow an aid convoy into the neighborhoods besieged by government forces for over two years appeared to flounder Sunday, with the opposition accusing the regime of changing the terms on even a preliminary agreement.
Strategically centered north of the capital, Damascus, Homs is a central gateway to the Lebanon border, the northern commercial capital of Aleppo, the coastal port city of Tartous and the Alawite enclave, Latakia.
One of the first cities to join the uprising against Bashar Assad, Homs was dubbed the “capital of the revolution” and was one of the first areas for the revolutionaries to militarize.
Heavy government bombardment, with the help of Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, allowed the government to gradually wrest back control over most of the city.
By July, rebel fighters had been largely cornered into the Old City and the Khaldieh neighborhoods, which are also now largely under government control.
Yet despite a fierce government offensive – fighters there described the shelling as sounding like “popping corn ” – the rebels in the Old City have remained defiant in their resistance, with government forces unable to enter or ever fully retake their small patch of territory.
From there, they have continued to launch mortar bombs and rockets at government targets as well as at civilian neighborhoods seen as loyal to the regime.
Some 200 families – mostly those of rebel fighters – or 2,000 people remain in the two neighborhoods, trapped under an intense government siege that has blocked supply routes used for weapons, as well as for medicines and food supplies.
Fighters have described dire conditions inside the Old City, with deaths occurring from malnutrition and lack of access to medical care.
But it is not the only rebel-held area to be subjected to what the opposition has described as a “starvation policy” or heavy bombardment. Neighborhoods circling Damascus are also under siege, while rebels in the northern city of Aleppo, Deraa, Idlib and elsewhere are also under constant and heavy assault.
The central location of Homs, the relatively contained area at stake and the balance of power between rebels and government forces, makes the city a more acceptable candidate to both sides as a test case, opposition sources said.
“It is a central location. Also, because we can coordinate with the FSA and the regime can coordinate with its own personnel, it makes it a little easier,” said Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition delegation in Geneva. “But the main reason Homs was chosen is because it is one of the hardest-hit cities and has been consistently hit hard.”
Opposition delegates at Geneva and activists in Homs said that the Syrian regime Sunday blocked access to 12 trucks of aid planned for delivery by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to Homs.
“Despite all the promises and all the efforts by the U.S., the Russians and everyone else, the regime did not let the aid convoy in,” said opposition delegate Munzer Aqbiq from Geneva.
The Homs governor, Talal Barazi, who has been involved in negotiations for locally brokered cease-fires and aid access in Homs for months and recently visited the front lines, was also said to have helped facilitate a deal.
“Despite the agreement from the governor, no progress was made,” Aqbiq said.
“We don’t sense any seriousness on this from the regime delegation.
“We are coordinating with the fighters and they are prepared to honor a cease-fire. They are waiting for the word on the agreement in Geneva,” he added.
Later Sunday, international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters at talks in Geneva that the government had now agreed that all women and children in the Old City could leave immediately.
The envoy added that the aid convoy would depart for the besieged areas Monday.
Inside the Old City, media activist Abu Rami, with the Syrian Revolution General Command, said fighters had agreed in principle to a cease-fire for the purposes of aid delivery and the establishment of safe passages for civilians.
But he demanded guarantees from the United Nations, the regime and the Red Crescent on humanitarian access and the opening of safe corridors for civilians.
“These things must be guaranteed,” he said. “The people who want to get out from besieged areas will then have their names listed and they can leave.”
But asked whether a deal could provide an opening for any lasting peace between the fighting sides, Abu Rami was even more skeptical.
“On the ground nothing will change. The shelling is ongoing on the besieged areas. The men who remain will continue their fight the regime,” he said.
Jouejati questioned the logistics of the operation, saying they indicated insincerity on the part of the regime.
“I would ask: If they are going to allow the aid convoys in, why would they take the women and children out?” she said.
“The issue at hand was about sending aid in; now it’s been changed to getting women and children out.”
“We don’t know what the strategy will be or where these women and children will be removed to.
“Allowing aid in is a very easy operation. The regime is playing games at the level of the most basic of humanitarian needs.”