North Homs negotiators say they will not give up on prisoner release in ceasefire talks

AMMAN: Opposition negotiators in the rebel-held northern Homs countryside say they will not compromise on their demand that thousands of detainees be released, even if it means the collapse of a tenuous ceasefire in the regime-encircled pocket, sources on the ground tell Syria Direct.

Residents and an opposition negotiator told Syria Direct this week that the feasibility of a ceasefire in north Homs, the last rebel holding in the province, hinges on one issue: the release of more than 7,000 detainees from across the province. A ceasefire between pro-government and rebel forces that went into effect earlier this month remains in place, though barely, because it sidesteps the issue of regime-held detainees.

The release of more than 7,000 prisoners, the majority of them civilians, has long been a red line for members of the opposition negotiating on behalf of residents and rebels in the province.

The detainee-release condition turned ceasefire negotiations in Waer—the last rebel district of Homs city until a rebel surrender agreement this past March—into a years-long process of talks, siege and bombardment.

In the end, Waer negotiators capitulated to Russian terms and dropped the detainee-release issue from their list of demands. Now, negotiators in north Homs say that unlike in Waer, they will not back away from detainee release, insisting that they are prepared to enter into a similar cycle of talks and military escalation if needed.

The encircled Homs countryside, a collection of cities, towns, villages and rural areas north of the provincial capital with an estimated population of 260,000 residents, is one of four regions in Syria where Russian representatives are trying to negotiate a permanent end to fighting on the ground.

But the demand for a large-scale detainee release, which the Syrian regime has not allowed in any previous set of negotiations with the opposition, has the potential to derail ceasefire negotiations, as it did in the Waer district.

“We are working in a minefield,” Aamer al-Aamer, one of six opposition negotiators for the northern Homs countryside, told Syria Direct this week. “But we will negotiate to free our detainees until our last breath.”

Ceasefire with ‘terms missing’

On July 31, Russian negotiators, a delegation from the Syrian National Coalition and representatives from one of north Homs’s many rebel groups signed a ceasefire agreement in Cairo.

The rebel-held northern Homs countryside is one of four “de-escalation zones” laid out during talks in Astana, Kazakhstan in May aimed at bringing an end to the violence between regime forces and rebel factions in southern Syria, the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, the northern Homs countryside and opposition-held territories in and around northwestern Idlib province.

Rebel-held Talbiseh, north of Homs, on August 3. Photo courtesy of Mahmoud Taha/AFP/Getty Images.

Since May’s Astana talks, Russian representatives negotiated similar ceasefires in southern Syria and the encircled East Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus.

July’s Cairo agreement called for a cessation of hostilities, entry of humanitarian aid into the countryside, free movement of civilians into and out of the besieged pocket and the deployment of Russian military police to monitor the ceasefire, reported Russian state media on August 3.

But the ceasefire makes only one ambiguously worded mention of the detainee issue, stipulating an “immediate release of the detainees and the establishment of an attached agreement for the mechanism of releasing detainees, which both sides should be committed to.”  

Still, regime forces and rebel factions have both violated the Egyptian- and Russian-brokered ceasefire multiple times since it went into effect on August 3.

Syrian regime warplanes launched airstrikes on a handful of towns in the opposition-held northern countryside last week, Syria Direct reported at the time.

On Sunday, Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham launched rockets at regime positions in northern Homs “in retaliation for [government] bombardment of civilians,” according to a rebel statement circulated on social media.

Pro-regime forces on the perimeter of the encircled pocket reportedly launched artillery strikes on the north Homs city of Talbiseh on Thursday.

The failure of the Cairo ceasefire, says local opposition negotiator Aamer al-Aamer, is that “the people who signed the agreement do not represent the northern countryside.”

“The detainee clause is a fundamental condition…that we will never compromise on,” he added.

For that reason, al-Aamer and five other local negotiations from across the northern Homs countryside met with Russian representatives on August 7 near the a-Dar al-Kabira crossing at the southern edge of the rebel-held pocket.

The negotiation committee for northern Homs announced in a statement the following day that the Cairo agreement was defunct, and that negotiators would continue to meet with the Russian representatives to hammer out the terms of a new agreement.

“There are more important things than a few cars of aid,” said an August 8 statement by the negotiation committee from the northern Homs countryside, “the first of which is the release of detainees.” 

Al-Aamer acknowledges that the Cairo agreement is a good starting point, but “there are some terms missing,” he says, namely the detainee release.

The terms of the new agreement that he and his fellow representatives are discussing with the Russian delegation “will be clear and agreed upon by all civilian, military and sharia authorities in the northern countryside,” he says.

The negotiator told Syria Direct that he is currently compiling a list of detainees with his five colleagues to deliver to the Russian delegation at their next sit-down, the timing of which is not yet scheduled.

“These negotiations are a leap forward, as they have moved the discussion from outside the country to the inside,” Abu al-Baraa, a citizen journalist in a-Dar al-Kabira who attended the second meeting with the Russians on Sunday, told Syria Direct the next day.

“The opposition abroad failed,” he said, referring to the Syrian National Coalition’s delegation.

The local negotiators “are asking for what civilians are asking for, the priority being the release of detainees.”

The case of Waer

On May 21, government forces took control of the Waer district, the last opposition-held neighborhood of Homs city. In the two months prior, 15,000 rebel fighters and families left the district for the rebel-held north, Syria Direct reported at the time.

The evacuation and surrender came after Waer’s opposition negotiators dropped their prisoner-release condition and signed a Russian-brokered surrender agreement to hand over the holdout district to the Syrian regime.

Detainees have been an issue for opposition negotiations since talks began in 2015.

But the Syrian regime—and, later on, their Russian allies—would not budge on the matter of detainees, either reneging on the detainee release terms or setting free only a fraction of the requested number.

A truce in the Homs neighborhood collapsed in March 2016 after Waer negotiators compiled “a list of 7,360 names of detainees…the regime responded that it could free only 137,” Syria Direct reported at the time.

Regime airstrikes and artillery pounded the 3 sq. km neighborhood of Waer during pauses in the negotiation process. Syrian Arab Army forces enforced an airtight encirclement of the district, with snipers positioned on its outskirts constricting civilian movement.

Opposition negotiators would repeatedly return to the negotiating table, and stood by their prisoner-release condition until March in talks with the Russians. 

“When we first met with the Russians, we brought up the matter of the detainees,” one of the opposition negotiators told Syria Direct at the time. “The Russians answered that they were terrorists, and this condition was never again brought up.”

The Syrian regime has since distanced itself from the “all-or-nothing” approach to negotiations.

Even the Cairo agreement stipulates that “Syrian opposition members are not forced to surrender weapons, be displaced to northern Syria, or withdraw from their lands.”

As for the northern Homs rebels—two hardline Islamist factions and an array of Free Syrian Army-affiliated battalions—they have not made any serious attempt to break the siege of the northern Homs countryside in years.

The opposition’s unwavering approach to the detainee issue has the potential to prolong the negotiation process and put the encircled rebel pocket on a path of negotiation, siege, bombardment, negotiation and, eventually, surrender.

That trajectory is familiar to former residents of Waer who lived through a cycle of failed negotiations followed by military escalation for months. Some residents of the northern Homs countryside told Syria Direct that they are not convinced their fate will be any different.

“It always ends the same way: people leaving in green buses for Idlib,” Bassam al-Homsi, a citizen journalist in the Houleh area of north Homs, told Syria Direct on Monday. His mention of green buses refers to a series of regime reconciliation agreements in which rebels and residents were transported to Syria’s rebel-held northwest.

But residents and opposition negotiators say that if they must go, it will be with the one thing Waer negotiations demanded before their Russian counterparts shut it down: detainee release.

“We don’t want to turn over our weapons and our land to the regime, but the most important condition is that the detainees be freed,” said Al-Homsi. “We expect military escalation.”

The estimated 260,000 residents living in rebel-held north Homs rely on local agriculture, fishing and exorbitantly priced goods sold at regime checkpoints. Essentials, such as bread and baby formula, are in short supply.

Despite this, many residents and opposition negotiators in the rebel pocket are still committed to the detainee release condition as a baseline demand for any ceasefire, even if it would mean a lifting of the siege.

Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the town of Rastan on August 11 to voice their commitment to the detainee issue, pro-opposition news outlets reported the same day.

“We are holding firm to the detainee issue, and people are insistent that this term be implemented first,” Yarub al-Dali, a citizen journalist in the northern Homs city of Rastan, told Syria Direct on Monday.

“Even if it means 60 years of bombardment rather than six, this demand cannot be dropped.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.