Syria: Tense Coexistence Between Regime and Militants in Homs District

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Syrian troops stand near seized items on November 19, 2013 in Qara, after the Syrian army said they have captured the village in the mountainous Qalamoun region on a key supply route between Damascus and Homs. (Photo: AFP - STR)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Thursday, November 21, 2013

Every morning, people in the Homs district of Waar go about their business safely, under the protection of the Syrian army. This daily scene reflects the blockade imposed on Waar, and the modus vivendi that has emerged between the Syrian regime and the insurgents in the district, where there are few signs of any military operations.

Homs – Waar is surrounded by bloodbaths taking place in central Syria, like in the embattled countryside of Damascus and the beleaguered neighborhoods of Homs itself, many of which have been leveled during the two-year conflict. The Waar neighborhood, populated with civilians, and behind them, masked militants, is fed up with the blockade imposed on it.

The 300,000 people who live in the new and old parts of Waar are paying the price for a “revolution” that they did not side with. They became the opposition’s human shields to prevent the Syrian army from entering.

This is where the true strength of the militants lies. Meanwhile, the government implements only one strategy in dealing with the problem in Waar, as with all similar problems in Syria, by means of a local civilian committee designed to reintroduce all those whose hands “have not been stained with blood” into the fold of the Syrian state.

Talal al-Barazi, governor of Homs, visited Waar a few days ago to check in on the efforts to transport aid through army-controlled entrances. The governor met with dignitaries from Waar and listened to their demands and complaints regarding the conduct of militants inside the neighborhood. The dignitaries do not seem to be intimidated by assassinations targeting what some in the armed Syrian opposition call “collaborators.”

No Military Operations in Waar

Waar is located about 7 km to the west of Homs’ city center. Broad stretches of groves separate it from the Homs refinery to the south and the Arid express route.

The district is divided in two: the old Waar in the north, which is closer to the old town of Homs, mostly populated by Bedouins; and the new Waar, or New Homs, to the south. New Homs is intersected by broad avenues, parks, and high rises.

According to Syrian military officers, it would take no more than 6 hours to seize control of this area using military vehicles, as it would be easy for the army to move through its broad streets and squares. “There is no military operation in Waar,” is something we heard from all those following up on military activities in Homs. Military and civilian officials in Homs agree: “Civil society should be given a chance to protect the residents of Waar.”

There are an estimated 2,500 militants in Waar. Some are outlaws who took advantage of the emergency in Syria to form criminal gangs. Others are militants fighting for the opposition Military Council. But there are also al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in the district.

The militants in Waar often clash with one another, and it is perhaps for this reason that Syrian government officials prefer to be spectators until the dust settles. In the meantime, these officials coordinate with civilian figures in the district, hoping to reach an agreement whereby militants who committed criminal offenses are not prosecuted on political grounds.

Waar Fears Militants in Neighboring Areas

Many reports have documented agreements reached between civilian figures in Waar and representatives of the Syrian regime to stop the bloodshed. But these agreements are often violated suddenly, leading to a rapid deterioration in security.

More than a month ago, members of the so-called Sharia Committee in Waar kidnapped and murdered a Syrian policeman. Militants also occupied and stationed snipers in the al-Jazeera al-Sabeiaa towers in Waar.

The forcible displacement of residents of the nearby village of Raqqa was also a consequence of “appeasing the rebels,” as regime supporters said, criticizing the leniency shown by the government toward militants in this large neighborhood of Homs. Regime supporters in other neighborhoods also claim that the people of Waar had agreed to take in the militants and their families, allowing them to be stationed in their areas.

In the vicinity of Waar, there are two villages with mostly pro-regime residents, Raqqa and Mazraa. When things inch closer to a negotiated solution in Waar, kidnappings, killings, and shellings targeting the villages’ residents surge immediately.

One permanent condition of the militants for any solution is allowing militants from the besieged old town of Homs to move to Waar without being stopped or searched by army checkpoints. But this is an absurd demand for both military officials and pro-regime civilians.

The Humanitarian Situation

Waar cannot be considered stable, no matter how much the army claims that it does not intend to conduct military operations there. To be sure, the attempts by Syrian soldiers to prevent any contact between militants in old Homs and Waar isolates the area from its surroundings. All the army can do for the civilians is allow aid convoys to enter.

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, the Homs Governor Barazi claimed that the UN response plan is being implemented to the letter in Waar. Barazi said that humanitarian relief has covered 100 percent of the district’s residents, adding that basic items such as foodstuffs cover 60 percent, though he said this was insufficient.

However, Red Crescent staff and other aid workers complain about the difficulty they face in accessing Waar, citing al-Muhandiseen Roundabout, which remains closed because of sniper activity. In turn, al-Mazraa Roundabout witnesses security incidents from time to time, meaning that it is only open for a few hours during the day to transport aid.

But the talk about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Waar, similar to what has been said about the town of Moaadamiyeh, seems exaggerated. To be sure, government employees can be seen coming and going from work in the safe neighborhoods daily through the army checkpoints.

Mahmoud, a government employee, confirmed that leaves in the morning to work and return home at noon carrying a few supplies for his family, noting that most other employees do the same. But as Mahmoud said, the area in which he lives cannot be considered stable and secure.

For her part, Maysaa, a government employee, said that relief arrives steadily to Waar, except when there is sniping. When that happens, she added, it causes a sharp shortage of food and other items in the neighborhood.

The Homs Governorate and Challenging Obstacles

The governor of Homs proudly declared that the road to the Justice Palace in Waar is now secure and open to judges and civil servants. He also said that the governorate opened a short public transport route for the citizens in the area as well.

Although all public schools in Waar have been turned into shelters for the displaced, Barazi asserted that there are schools in the neighborhood that remain open, citing classes in the church that can accommodate 360 students.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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