London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Syrian rebels evacuated the city of Homs on Wednesday, as part of an UN-brokered deal between the Syrian government and its opponents.
Videos showing rebel fighters boarding buses and leaving Homs’s Old City appeared on social network websites on Wednesday morning, as well as reports of the buses arriving in rebel-held towns to the north.
Under the agreement, brokered at the end of last week, each fighter was allowed to leave the city with a rifle and a bag of personal effects. A number of civilians were also evacuated, according to reports.
The governor of Homs province, Talal Al-Barazi, was quoted by state news agency SANA as saying that 2,000 people would be evacuated in total.
1,400 civilians were evacuated from the Old City in February, in a UN–Red Crescent operation.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, was sometimes called the “capital of the revolution” against the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and has endured a brutal two-year siege that has seen large parts of the city destroyed by fighting between rebels and government forces, and by government artillery fire and air strikes. Rebels in the city were steadily forced to give ground after government forces launched an offensive to retake control of it in March of last year.
Its fall to government forces is a symbolic victory for the Syrian government, and comes following a string of battlefield successes in recent months along the Syrian–Lebanese border.
According to press reports, in return for being allowed to leave the city, rebel forces allowed food and other humanitarian supplies into the towns of Nubl and Zahraa, which are under siege by rebels near Aleppo. The release of several hostages held by the opposition in Aleppo is also part of the deal.
Outside Syria, European diplomatic sources, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, said that the Friends of Syria meeting set to take place in London next week will discuss providing Syrian opposition sources with “sophisticated arms.”
The main objective of the meeting will be to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the Syrian presidential elections—scheduled for June 3—which will almost certainly see Bashar Al-Assad secure a third term in office, the source added.
Rebels in southern Syria recently received a shipment of US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, fueling speculation that Washington may have decided to drop its previous opposition to supplying weapons to Syrian rebels.
However, analysts say the US is unlikely to agree to allow rebels to receive the anti-aircraft missiles they have asked for, out of fears the weapons may fall into the hands of jihadist rebel groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda such as the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The same day, Najib Al-Ghadban, the Washington representative of the Syrian National Coalition—the most prominent umbrella group of the Syrian opposition—told Asharq Al-Awsat that he will head the western-backed group’s “foreign mission” in the US.
The Obama administration raised the official status of the Coalition’s presence in the US earlier this week, making it more able to create bank accounts and raise funds.
The foreign mission will seek to “open more channels of communication with US government institutions and develop cooperation with the UN, in addition to raising the level of coordination with international humanitarian groups,” Ghadban said.