Syrian rebels in Homs sign deal with military to give up most of stronghold city
Assad's forces effectively secure foes' surrender in Homs after six months of shelling as regime tightens grip ahead of presidential election
The Syrian government and rebels struck a deal for opposition fighters to withdraw from their besieged strongholds in the city of Homs, in another military success for the regime.
The accord will mean all but one district of the city in central Syria, once dubbed the "capital of the revolution", will be back under government control in the run-up to elections.
Rebel leaders speaking from Homs said they had little choice but to yield after at least six relentless months of shelling that has taken them and the small number of families who remain in the Old City to the point of starvation.
Homs had become a heartland of Syria's civil war and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the past three years. Its proximity to the Lebanese border drew fighters from both sides; Sunni Muslim militants travelled to the city, determined to keep it from falling, while militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah played an increasingly prominent role in ensuring it did just that.
Western officials in Beirut confirmed that the deal was due to take effect but warned that the Syrian military had not honoured an earlier ceasefire which offered safe passage to opposition fighters who wanted to quit the battle.
"Let's not forget that there was a UN-sponsored truce earlier in the year also, in the Old City, that will long live in infamy because all men of fighting age who surrendered were then arrested," one official said. "They have never been heard from again, and the UN did nothing about it."
Locally brokered ceasefires have taken effect elsewhere in Syria, notably in the Moadimeyah district of Damascus, also once a hub of opposition control.
The ceasefires are framed as a part of a national reconciliation but, in effect, amount to surrenders. They compel rebel groups to first raise the Syrian flag over a civic centre, then hand over heavy weapons in return for food. Some fighters who have complied have been allowed to pass regime checkpoints. Others have been immediately detained.
"It will certainly mark a new chapter for the regime, a chapter where it's regaining control of the country," said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group in London.
A government seizure of Homs would be "the icing on the cake for [President Bashar al-] Assad", said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Centre.
Still, large swathes of the country are beyond government control and the violence has forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.
The fragile security situation was underlined when three people were killed by mortar fire in a central district of Damascus yesterday, a monitoring group and state media said. Rebels fighting to overthrow Assad have managed to hit the centre of the capital with rockets and mortar fire during the three-year-old conflict despite firm government control over the heart of the city. Residents say the mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents have stepped up the attacks in recent weeks as government forces have tightened their grip over central parts of the country.
Since early January, mainstream and Islamist rebels, along with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been accused of kidnapping and killing activists and rival rebels.
Despite the violence, the government plans to hold a presidential election next month that is expected to sweep Assad to victory. It will be the country's first multi-candidate presidential vote, after a constitutional amendment did away with referendums.
Agence France-Presse, The Guardian, Associated Press, Reuters