London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A ceasefire has been agreed between Syrian opposition fighters and troops loyal to the government of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in the central city of Homs, local media reported on Friday. The Assad regime has been besieging opposition fighters holed up in Homs after advancing against rebel forces across the country.
Quoting opposition sources, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the truce began at noon local time on Friday and is set to last for 24 hours. The ceasefire will allow Islamist rebels in Homs Old City to leave the city and regroup in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, after which time the government will retake control of the strategically important central city.
Hundreds of civilians were evacuated from Homs in early February as part of a humanitarian ceasefire overseen by the UN and the Red Crescent. Many rebel fighters also took the opportunity to leave the besieged city at that time, with those who remained being strongly outnumbered and outgunned by pro-Assad forces.
Homs, the third most populous city in Syria, has been one of the flashpoints of the Syrian revolution, with some parts of the city under rebel control since the start of the uprising in 2011. Following the withdrawal of fighters, this will be the first time that Assad forces have been in complete control of the city since before the uprising. The fierce clashes between opposition forces and the government have left many districts of the city completely destroyed.
The Assad government has escalated its confrontation with Syrian rebels in recent months, regaining control of the Qalamoun border region with Lebanon and cutting off Syrian rebels from strategically important supply and communication lines.
On Wednesday, government air strikes targeted a number of rebel-held districts, including a market in the northern city of Aleppo, killing at least 33 people and destroying two residential buildings. Government aircraft also reportedly bombed a school in the south of Aleppo province, killing 18 people, including 10 children.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that rebel forces in Rif Dimashq had been targeted by barrel bombs, killing a number of rebel fighters. Renewed clashes were reported in Latakia governorate, in the northwest of the country on the Mediterranean coast.
The anti-Assad rebels have suffered a series of defeats since the beginning of the year, being pushed back from central Syria and the Rif Dimashq area. Many point to rebel infighting the cause of their recent setback.
The Free Syrian Army, the military wing of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, has called for more military assistance and has found itself confronting Islamist rebels seeking to establish an Islamic State in a post-Assad Syria.
Syria’s Islamist rebels are also riven with divisions, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front waging a bloody territorial war. The Al-Nusra Front is an Al-Qaeda affiliate. ISIS previously announced its loyalty to the terrorist network, although the Al-Qaeda organization has disavowed the group.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has issued a number of audio recordings calling for Islamist rebels in Syria to end the infighting and focus their attentions on toppling the Assad regime. The latest recording, published on an extremist website on Friday, called on Syrian Islamists to “immediately halt the killing of your brother mujahideen . . . and dedicate yourselves to fighting the enemies of Islam among the Ba’athists, Alawites and their rawafid allies,” using a derogatory term for Shi’ites.