updated 7:33 AM MST, Nov 17, 2017

Syrian rebels agreed Friday to a ceasefire that would let hundreds of them evacuate their last bastions in Homs

  • Published in Middle East

Syrians gather at the site of reported air strikes by government forces on Thursday in northeastern Aleppo. The city is a key battleground in the country's civil war.
Photograph by: Zein Al-Rifai, Getty Images , The Associated Press

After months of bombardment and blockades, Syrian rebels agreed Friday to a ceasefire that would let hundreds of them evacuate their last bastions in Homs, handing over to President Bashar Assad's forces a strategic but largely destroyed city once hailed as the capital of the revolution.

The deal reached on Homs, Syria's third-largest city, follows a series of military gains by the regime around the capital, Damascus, and in the country's vital centre.

"It will certainly mark a new chapter for the regime, a chapter where it's regaining control of the country," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia group in London.

A government seizure of Homs would be "the icing on the cake for Assad," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.

Although the agreement, if it holds, represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a facesaving deal for both sides. Weakened rebels, for whom Homs's collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government can save manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without blood.

The Syrian government can now declare a victory of sorts by claiming control over two of the country's largest cities - Homs and Damascus - as well as the Mediterranean coast, Assad's ancestral heartland. But Assad has lost control over large swaths of territory, particularly in the north, and continues to rule over a divided country with a raging insurgency. Syrian officials have scheduled elections for June 3 but say balloting will not take place in rebel-held areas.

The 48-hour ceasefire deal, reported by opposition activists and pro-government TV stations, came after intensified airstrikes and artillery bombardment of rebel-held areas in recent weeks.

The bloodstained city in the central western plains of Syria was among the first to rise up against the president. Early on, residents tried to recreate the fervour of Egypt's Tahrir Square with waves of anti-Assad protests, only to face siege upon siege by government forces. Homs became a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins with collapsed walls and scorched buildings.

One Homs-based opposition activist said it was a bitter moment for rebels barricaded in 13 neighbourhoods around the city's historic centre.

"This isn't what we wanted, but it's all we could get," Beibars Tilawi said. "The regime wanted to take control of the heart of the revolution."

There was no immediate comment by Syrian officials.

Homs, 130 km north of Damascus with a prewar population of about 1.2 million, is particularly important for its central location. It links the capital with Aleppo in the north - the country's largest city and another key battleground.

For more than a year, government troops have blockaded rebels inside a string of districts spread over some 13 km, causing widespread hunger and weakening the fighters.

Equally troublesome for the rebels, their supply lines were squeezed as government troops scored military victories near Damascus and the Lebanon border. Hundreds of fighters have surrendered to forces loyal to Assad in recent months, activists said.
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