The evacuation of al-Waer (Image via Twitter).
Six years ago, the children of Deraa sprayed anti-government graffiti on a wall sparking the Syrian uprising. After persistent mass protests across the country, forces from all over the world, led by Iran and Russia, are exerting their economic and military might to prop up Bashar al-Assad and crush the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. Nonetheless, against these extraordinary odds, the resistance of the Syrian people has continued unabated.
If there is a city in Syria that epitomizes this resistance, it is Homs, especially the 50,000 residents of the Homsi neighborhood of al-Waer. Homs was one of the first cities to peacefully protest against Assad’s rule and also one of the first to face the regime’s indiscriminate barrel bombs. One event that would foreshadow the regime’s brutality was its attack on Homs’ Clock Tower area—the equivalent of Egypt’s Tahrir Square. On April 18th 2011, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters chanting anti-government slogans amassed near Homs’ iconic Clock Tower only to be met with a savage response by Assad’s militias. The attack resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and became known as the “Clock Massacre.”
After the arrival of the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah and the barbaric “kneel or starve” strategy of the Assad regime that caused widespread hunger among residents, the historic area of Old Homs fell to Assad’s forces on May 7th 2014, after years of ferocious resistance put up by its residents.
It was because of this resistance that Homs earned the title as the capital of the revolution and suffered countless other massacres at the hands of the Assad regime. The veteran British photojournalist Paul Conroy reported on the aftermath of one such attack and described “indiscriminate” targeting of homes. “It was like Grozny,” he said. “In every one of [those] houses there were people.” Conroy would go on to witness the murder of his colleague, the American journalist Marie Colvin, by Assad’s forces who tracked and deliberately targeted her in an attempt to silence her reporting on civilian casualties in Homs. Of course, there are many other journalists, mainly Syrian and not covered by the international media, who would face the same fate as Colvin for trying to report on the catastrophic events occurring in the city.
The ensuing siege of the city by Assad’s forces and allied Shia militias was described by many as “Syria’s Stalingrad.” Ultimately, the Assad regime managed to capture the whole city after a relentless aerial campaign. The only exception was the al-Waer neighborhood which resisted until its final surrender on March 13th 2017.
Residents of al-Waer neighborhood were “given the option” to either head to Idlib, Jarablos, or North Hama countryside under a Russian-mediated evacuation plan, an euphemism for ethnic cleansing. Many residents opted to leave after seeing the regime’s attempt to cleanse the city of its Sunni population and change its demographics. This has been a systematic policy of the Assad regime and its allies in many areas that it has taken over like Qusair and Darayya among others. The long record of “revenge attacks,” like the street executions of Aleppo in December 2016, carried out by regime-allied militias after taking over former opposition towns must have been another motivation for the residents to evacuate.
This is a clear indication of the sectarian intent of the Assad regime and its Iranian partner to create a new demographic reality so as to secure control over strategically important areas. Assad himself has stressed the importance of taking over certain areas in the county over others, what became known as “Sooriya al-Mufeeda” or “Useful Syria.” This term is meant to emphasize Assad’s priorities in controlling parts of Syria that are strategic to his survival and in the interest of its ally Iran.
As a result, consolidating power on the Syrian coast and areas close to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, ensures control over “Useful Syria.” The neighborhood of al-Waer, therefore, was a strategically important target for the regime even though it posed minimal threat to Assad’s rule.
Russia’s role in the evacuation deal was one of duplicity, as was the case for the previous deal in Wadi Barada where Russia turned a blind eye to Assad’s assaults during the so-called ceasefire in the midst of the Astana talks.
After months of aerial bombardment, the rebels in al-Waer were even forced to drop their condition that the regime release prisoners from its dungeons. The Assad regime is notorious for its gruesome treatment of prisoners. A recent report by Amnesty International, for example, documented the cases of 13,000 Syrian prisoners who were tortured to death by the regime.
One of the negotiators from al-Waer neighborhood, Bahira al-Zarier, claimed that the Russians refused to budge on the release of prisoners because the prisoners were “terrorists,” remaining faithful to the Assad regime’s narrative that the opposition only consisted of “terrorists.”
Al-Waer is a reminder that the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies will continue to cleanse small rebel pockets around Homs, Hama, Damascus, and Deraa. As a part of the so-called national reconciliation plan orchestrated by the regime, these towns will face the same stark realities that al-Waer faced: surrender on Assad’s terms or flee to Idlib.
International complicity and silence has exacerbated the death tolls in these areas and again subjected once-liberated towns to a new form of occupation by Assad’s allies. The total abandonment of al-Waer’s residents was highlighted by the refusal of the United Nations to monitor the evacuation, leaving it to parties that have a consistent record of committing atrocities and crimes against humanity.
Al-Waer will now have to deal with the presence of Russian military police alongside Assad’s forces. The medieval siege imposed on the neighborhood is yet another chapter in the Syrian tragedy. Ultimately, the Syrian regime’s sectarian project will prove to be unsustainable and its attempt to change demographics will neither bring security nor stability. The recent killing of Hasan Daaboul—the Syrian military intelligence chief known to head the notorious “Branch of Death”— and other military officers in the center of Homs serves as an example that stability does not necessarily follow occupation.
Nevertheless, the heroic Syrian people will continue to resist and repeat the famous chant that has echoed around the world: “Oh God, we have no one but you.”