Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Negotiations between the Syrian government and rebels in the besieged city of Homs have entered a new phase, amid reports that the fates of Iranians and Hezbollah members being held by the opposition are being discussed.
The Syrian government and opposition agreed a truce on Friday after UN mediation, the terms of which included a three-day ceasefire, prisoner exchanges, and the withdrawal of rebel fighters to opposition-held territory.
As of Sunday afternoon, the withdrawal had yet to begin, though activists on the ground told journalists this would happen “in a matter of hours.”
The completion of the withdrawal of rebel fighters, if goes ahead, will signal the recapture by government forces of Syria’s third-largest city after a brutal two-year siege.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said it believed the Syrian government was likely to adhere to the truce because it sought the release of Iranian prisoners held by the Islamic Front, an alliance of several Syrian rebel groups.
A member of the Coalition’s Political Bureau, Mohammad Khair Al-Wazir, said on Saturday: “The Assad regime and the revolutionaries have reached a truce, sponsored by the Islamic Front and the UN.”
In a statement on the Coalition’s website, Wazir added: “The truce also includes the release of foreign prisoners . . . This is the first agreement which could be called a truce between the two sides and which is not a forced agreement as was the case in previous truce deals in other areas.”
A spokesman of the opposition interim government’s Defense Ministry, Kanan Mohamed, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The deal includes the release of an Iranian officer held by the Baydaa Martyrs Battalion in Homs in exchange for allowing opposition fighters out of the besieged areas.”
He said he did not dismiss the possibility of “expanding the agreement to include the release of 10 members of Hezbollah held by the Islamic Front.”
Meanwhile, French news agency AFP quoted opposition negotiator, Abu Al-Harith, as saying: “Negotiations have entered a new phase which involves the Liwa Al-Tawhid, who are in the negotiations to secure the release of Iranian officers held in Aleppo . . . in return for allowing fighters out of Homs safely.”
US-based news website Syria Direct said the truce was reached in the presence of Russians and Iranians and included the release of a Russian officer who has been held by the Islamic Front in the Latakia suburbs since April 10, as well as a number of Iranians, including a woman who was detained in March.
Aside from battlefield assistance from members of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militias, Syrian government forces have reportedly received training, equipment and support from Iran, with Iranian-designed drones spotted over Syria.
Homs governor, Talal Al-Barazi, said: “Negotiations to allow fighters our have approached the final agreement stage . . . Discussions revolve around completing the points of the agreement which would guarantee the city would be free from arms and armed fighters.”
Barazi said “the ceasefire started on Friday and is still holding,” and that he hoped it would hold until the agreement had been completed.
The governor said he believed 80 percent of rebel fighters in Homs wanted to surrender, but were prevented from doing so by the Al-Nusra Front.
In Aleppo, violent clashes continued around the Air Force Intelligence building and in the Zahraa area of the city between government forces—supported by Iraqi militias and Lebanese Hezbollah—on one side, and the Free Syrian Army and Islamic brigades including the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Front on the other.
Fighting was also reported around Aleppo Central Prison which has been under siege by the opposition brigades for many months.