A week before the Astana talks resulted in renewed international momentum for a political solution to the Syrian conflict, a journalist in the neighborhood of Waer – the last rebel-held pocket of Syria’s Homs City – took to the streets to survey public opinion.
“I really have no idea” about the talks, responded one woman, glancing sideways at the interviewer with her eyebrows raised. “I don’t know about them … I don’t follow the news,” quipped a younger man.
But if residents of Waer have not heard of the negotiations that recently concluded in the Kazakh capital, representatives in the next round of expected talks at Geneva would do well to understand what has happened in Waer. At a local level, the encircled neighborhood has been confronting some of the thorniest questions surrounding Syria’s future while negotiating its own settlement for more than two years.
The Waer negotiations are part of Damascus’s strategy of securing “reconciliations.” These are agreements that are wrested from besieged populations through starvation and bombardment, entailing a return of Syrian state control to rebel-held areas. Local reconciliations are a key part of the government’s military roadmap. It is pursuing these agreements in remaining rebel held pockets of Syria concurrent with developments on the international stage. Even if anticipated talks in Geneva result in the beginning of a comprehensive political solution, Russia has indicated it wants to formalize local truces within the framework of such a deal.
If the United States and other Western powers still intend to have a say in the future political dispensation of Syria, it is crucial for their policymakers to understand the nature of these negotiations and agreements. Using messaging apps, Skype, and email, we interviewed six Waer residents and two journalists from Homs in order to piece together, in detail, the truce process there and determine what it could tell us about reconciliations moving forward.
As forces backing the Syrian government leverage their newfound military edge in the conflict, Waer illuminates the government’s years long use of siege tactics and military escalation to extract significant concessions from its weaker negotiating partners. Specifically, Waer’s experience calls into question the regime’s intention and ability to address an issue likely to play a central role in future agreements: detainee release.
This key matter, in turn, reveals that the Assad regime is determined to pursue a deal on its own terms, even if that means defying, or at the very least ignoring, Russian intercessions. Even when a deal seemed on the verge of success, and when Russia brings pressure to bear on the Assad regime, government representatives consistently refused to release prisoners from Waer, opting instead for escalation.
Waer’s story also shows us that even if the government signs a deal in good faith, its implementation can be compromised by networks of war profiteers who have cropped up on both sides of the conflict. In Waer, spoilers to the truce have gone so far as to kill civilians in government-held areas to rile up public opinion against a deal. Finally, the Waer truce process brings into relief the key question concerning reconciliations: In a post-conflict Syria where violence has polarized communities along sectarian lines, how can hostile neighbors return to peaceable coexistence?
Two Years at the Table
Waer began serious negotiations with government representatives after rebels departed Old Homs in mid-2014, leaving it the last holdout district of Homs City. By then, years of conflict with the regime and militias manned by their former neighbors, combined with a continuous siege, had left Waer’s residents exhausted but still capable of defending themselves. The government has since utilized military escalation to whittle down the opposition’s demands, from partial control of the neighborhood and the release of thousands of civilian detainees, to a full surrender and the release of a few hundred.
Over the past two years, the two sides have several times reached what they refer to as a comprehensive agreement. A 15-person negotiating committee represents Waer (their identities are too sensitive to disclose). Dib Zietun, head of the general security directorate, led the regime’s negotiating efforts from late 2014 through fall 2016. In late 2016, Russian negotiators began talking to the Waer delegation, and then the regime authorized Wael Aqeel, deputy of Assad confidante Bassam al-Hassan, to head the most recent round of talks that began in December.
Any chances Waer rebels may have had for military victory dimmed through 2015 and 2016 as the armed opposition lost momentum in northern Homs and Syria more broadly. Hundreds of fighters in Waer have managed to keep regime forces at bay, but amid evacuations and gradual demobilization they have become increasingly unable to mount offensives outside of the neighborhood. Today, only forces loyal to the government are able to inflict damage on their adversary, and the only real leverage the Waer negotiating committee has is the presence of an estimated 50,000 residents in the neighborhood.
Negotiators first signed a truce in December 2015. The multi-faceted agreement centered on prisoner exchanges, the staged surrender of weapons, and a loosening of freedom of movement, leaving ambiguous any long-term vision for the return of state control over the district. University students, retired government employees, and laborers were able to intermittently travel outside of Waer into the city proper, granting some economic relief and creating an intermittent, if bizarre, sense of normalcy.
But the December 2015 agreement and subsequent ones have fallen apart when the government is forced to address the detainee clause. In the early stages of truce talks, the Negotiating Committee demanded the release of 7,530 detainees from all over Homs Province. Both sides agree this is the most controversial element of the truce. Beyond the Syrian government’s inability to account for all 7,530 names, it is also wary of the negative press resulting from freed detainees telling stories of torture and does not want to set a precedent to be repeated in future truce deals across Syria.
“If the regime agrees to the detainee release clause, it will make that a ‘legitimate’ or ‘essential’ demand for any other area negotiating a truce,” Osama Abu Zeid, a journalist from Homs, told us over Facebook from Turkey. The government tends to base local truces off the conditions of prior deals: it tried to leverage agreements in the Damascus suburbs of Mohadhamiyat al-Sham and Darayya, which rebels evacuated without securing detainee releases in August and October, to pressure Waer to do the same. The regime is therefore hesitant to implement the detainee release clause in Waer for fear that other rebel-held areas like Douma City could use that to legitimize their own demands during reconciliation talks.
Amid the back and forth over the detainee clause, a pattern emerged. When talks faltered, the government responded with force. “Every time we get to a stage where the government needs to deal with the clause on detainees…it puts pressure on the neighborhood,” Jalal al-Tallawi, a media activist in Waer, told us over Skype. This pressure takes the form of launching shells into the area, sniping civilians, and tightening the siege by restricting freedom of movement and preventing humanitarian access.
In May 2016, state security forces briefly detained the Waer negotiators themselves as they approached a checkpoint. After the event, says Jalal, the truce process begun in December 2015 “froze.” The regime tightened the siege, and before long residents were seeking hospital care for malnutrition.
With no coherent path forward after an additional nine months of violence and hunger, Waer’s negotiators returned to the table in August. This time, important terms of the deal had changed – the violence worked. While the December 2015 agreement allowed for elements of the armed opposition to remain and left the future of Waer vague, now rebels would no longer be permitted to stay in the district after they relinquished their heavy weaponry. All fighters would either leave for Idlib, or live as civilians under Syrian state authority. Roughly 250 fighters departed the neighborhood in the wake of the August 2016 agreement, following 300 who had left as part of the December 2015 deal.
But even an agreement modified in the regime’s favor didn’t last long. As summer turned to fall, a familiar cycle repeated itself: Whenever it became time for the government to document detainee locations, it turned up the violence. When talks resumed in November, a Russian mediator was now the key government interlocutor, and promised opposition negotiators to work on the detainees problem. But in December, the government issued the neighborhood a new ultimatum: Surrender or face another round of military escalation.
In 2017, Waer continues to oscillate between violence and calm. On Wednesday last week, government airstrikes and shelling on the neighborhood killed 11, including 3 children, according to al-Tallawi, the local media activist.
Spoilers to the Truce
In addition to the regime repeatedly sidestepping detainee releases through military escalation, mysterious car bombings in Homs proper have also wreaked havoc on talks. Thirty-seven attacks have devastated loyalist, predominantly Alawite, districts of Homs since 2014. These bombings, some of which occurred directly after a truce was signed, appear to be attempts by one or many actors to undermine trust in the negotiating parties. They call into question the negotiating teams’ ability to dictate events, given hard-liners and financial interests on both sides.
Interviewees described an entire economy that has sprung up around the suffering of Waer’s residents, widening the circle of suspects who might have an interest in tanking negotiations through violence targeting civilians. As in the encircled Damascus suburbs, the regime has licensed businessmen in Homs to import goods into Waer, which they sell in limited quantities at high prices. Regime troops stationed at checkpoints (both state security and the militias known as the National Defense Forces) charge for the passage of goods, as do the rebels on the other side of the trenches. By the time supplies hit shelves, they are priced beyond what many residents can pay. And when a shipment of goods finally makes it inside Waer, “some small traders [in the neighborhood] hoard goods until the market has no more — then they put them out” to further inflate prices, according to a local activist reached via WhatsApp who requested anonymity. Any link in this chain of financial beneficiaries would have an interest in seeing truce negotiations fail. Taken together with the sectarian and political opposition to a truce in Waer, i.e. officials and militiamen who would prefer to see the neighborhood emptied of inhabitants or destroyed, it is unsurprising that unnamed actors disrupt negotiations each time they seem to pick up steam.
The most infamous incident was the Akrama school bombing, a car bomb and suicide attack in October 2014 that killed more than 30 people — mostly primary school-age children — for which no one claimed responsibility. Three days later the regime escalated its shelling of Waer, bringing negotiations to a halt.
Most Homs residents who are loyal to the regime, including a pro-regime journalist we spoke with over Skype, blame Waer’s rebels, citing the militants’ desire to retain their status in the district, and suggesting they have a monetary incentive to do so. ISIL, which has significant forces in eastern Homs Province, but not in Waer, has claimed responsibility for several attacks, but not all of them. Those that have included suicide bombers were likely ISIL or al-Nusra, the latter of which had a presence in Waer until 2015. But there have been many more attacks involving just cars rigged with explosives, or bags with bombs placed on microbuses.
Residents of Waer, and at least some pro-regime residents, blame the Iranian-influenced, largely Shi’ite National Defense Forces, and reports of Syrian government action against local militiamen involved in war profiteering lend credence to this theory. According to one line of reasoning, no one could have brought car bombs or other explosives so often into the most well-protected neighborhoods of the third-largest city in Syria unless they knew people manning the maze of checkpoints at the entrances to these areas. The anonymous journalist confirmed that regime security has arrested and sentenced loyalists involved in smuggling ammunition and fuels into the neighborhood. “When one person is depended on to defend a certain neighborhood or operate a checkpoint, sometimes the continuation of the crisis is in his interest,” he said over Skype.
It is impossible to ascertain which party is behind the attacks. It could be pro-government militias, it could be the rebels, it could be ISIL or al-Nusra, or it could be a combination of all four. But in the end, the dozens of bombings directed at civilians have palpably undermined both sides’ confidence in the possibility of a lasting agreement.
“I have a suspicion that the truce doesn’t last long because there’s a third party who is making a lot of money off of the siege and bombing,” said an amateur photographer from Waer who spoke to us over WhatsApp, on condition of anonymity.
What’s Next for Waer?
As a long-isolated central district, Waer shows us what happens when all hope for a rebel military victory fades. The regime increased the rate of piecemeal truce negotiations in 2016 (with Russian prodding), and will only try to accelerate agreements around Damascus and elsewhere in western Syria now that control over Aleppo has been settled. Elements representing the opposition will continue to show up at the table seeking an end to the violence, but the Syrian government will likely avoid tough concessions in favor of violence, simply because the balance of power is now firmly in the regime’s favor.
The mechanics of the iterative Waer deals show us that detainees will remain a stumbling block in local truce negotiations long after populations, beaten down by years of hunger and bombardment, have relinquished demands for political gains. Waer residents resigned themselves to surrender with dignity, but refused to implement any deal that did not reunite them with their loved ones. But by agreeing to prisoner releases, the regime runs the risk of further exposing the details of its detention system, and solidifying resistance to the truce if former detainees join armed brigades or take up local leadership roles. Perhaps most importantly, it risks legitimizing detainee release as part of future local reconciliations. A February 2016 estimate published by the U.N. Human Rights Council suggests that, “tens of thousands of people are detained by the Syrian Government at any one time.” The regime cannot release all these prisoners alive even if it wanted to: a recent Amnesty report estimated that 13,000 men had been hanged in a single prison, Saydnaya, over the past five years.
Where the regime has overwhelming military superiority, a back-and-forth over freeing detainees is unlikely to derail deals. In al-Hama, Qudsiya, and Moadhamiyyet al-Sham, residents agreed to evacuate without seeing or learning the fate of their missing relatives, because they were faced with rapidly deteriorating conditions and the threat of an imminent ground campaign. But in more resilient areas, the regime’s stubborn resistance to address this issue could hamper nascent truces. If Waer teaches us anything, it is that the regime will not hesitate to replace negotiations with violent escalation every time talks become stuck, potentially dragging the truce process out for years.
But even if the government decides to negotiate in good faith, there are elements of the outcome it does not fully control.
Waer indicates that, at least in some parts of Syria, the networks of financial and political interests that have sprung up around the conflict are prepared to kill civilians to jeopardize truces. This might be a particularly relevant lesson for the besieged pocket in northern Homs, home to an estimated quarter-million people. There, National Defense Forces and other Iranian-backed militias charge money for the passage of goods and publicly defied Homs Governor Talal Barazi’s order to open a road into the northern countryside as part of a deal signed in summer 2015. Beyond those who profiteer off of sieges, potential spoilers carrying financial incentives exist across the conflict, including those who smuggle diesel across the regime-rebel frontlines in Hama, and for armed groups that control border crossings between northern Syria and Turkey.
Since August 2016 in Waer, regime officials have made clear they would like to conclude a final truce. “There was a decision, a binding decision you could say, that Waer is moving towards a peaceful solution…and any spoiler was going to pay the price,” according to the loyalist journalist. In Waer and elsewhere, the Syrian government will need to bring militias under control if it hopes to actually get these deals done.
From there, is the issue of coexistence. After a local truce is implemented, how will residents live side by side with communities they have been hostile toward for five years? In Waer’s case, the loyalist journalist is optimistic that civilians will stay in the district. He says that two years after Old Homs was recaptured, residents from Akrama, the site of the aforementioned school bombing, and Sunni-majority Baba Amr in Old Homs now mix together freely. You can walk around at night in Karm al-Shami or al-Ghouta, formerly pro-rebel neighborhoods, without fear. But not all Waer residents we interviewed were convinced that relations will ever again be neighborly between them and staunchly loyalist Alawite or Shi’ite neighborhoods like al-Zahraa, Akrama, and especially the neighboring town of al-Mezraa. “It’s difficult for me to imagine [us living side by side], with what we’ve been through,” said a student reached over email.
Across Syria, a pro-opposition narrative holds that Iranian-sponsored militias oppose truce deals that allow residents to stay in their neighborhoods, and instead aim to transfer populations and change demographics. Even if this narrative is untrue, pro-revolution Syrians will look to Waer as a bellwether for their future. Whether or not Waer residents, and besieged populations like them, are able to reintegrate into the fabric of Assad’s western Syria depends in large part on how far the regime intends to go to honor its truces and hold militias in check.
If the regime allows ordinary residents and former rebels to live their lives relatively unmolested, provide functioning municipal and security services in these areas, and prevent militiamen from committing abuses, war fatigue might just trump people’s desire for retaliation.
But after years of false hope, Waer’s residents are convinced they cannot fully trust any purported truce or reconciliation.
“Rebels will stay with their weapons throughout the truce process,” said the pro-opposition activist over WhatsApp. “If the regime tries to violate the truce, fighting will resume.”
Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Daniel Wilkofsky are Syria Analysts at Navanti Group, LLC, a commercial research company focused on development and stabilization issues. They are both former journalists at Syria Direct. They’re on Twitter as @Dwilkofsky1 and @BiffPM.
Image: Lens Young Homsi, Facebook