North Homs activists decry ‘clear violation’ of ceasefire

AMMAN: Two recent Russian-backed ceasefire deals in north Homs province and the east Damascus suburbs are crumbling amid “clear violations,” activists tell Syria Direct, as regime forces pummeled rebel-held districts in both areas on Thursday.

Syrian regime warplanes reportedly began bombing a handful of towns within the encircled, opposition-held north Homs countryside Thursday morning—one week after Russian and opposition negotiators implemented a ceasefire deal there, Mohammad al-Homsi, a citizen journalist on the ground told Syria Direct. At least one civilian was killed in the attack.

“This is a clear violation of the [recent] de-escalation agreement,” he said.

Meanwhile, pro-regime forces stationed 140km south of Homs, on the perimeter of the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus, fired dozens of mortars at the blockaded East Ghouta enclave throughout Wednesday and Thursday. Five people were killed Wednesday afternoon, a Civil Defense spokesman said, after shells struck a crowded public square in Ghouta.

Civil Defense volunteers put out a fire after a bombing in Kafr Batna on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense-Outer Damascus.

The attacks in East Ghouta are the most recent in a months-long assault on opposition towns east of the capital despite an Egyptian and Russian-brokered de-escalation deal between the Syrian government and rebel fighters that went into effect two weeks ago.

‘Just another game’

North Homs is a largely rural pocket of opposition towns and villages adjacent to the regime-held provincial capital. Syrian regime forces first encircled the northern countryside in 2012.

For years, an estimated 260,000 residents there have relied on aid deliveries, local fishing and agriculture as well as bribing surrounding checkpoint guards in order to bring in food.

Russian and opposition negotiators in Cairo announced a ceasefire deal last Thursday that made north Homs the third “de-escalation” zone in Syria under a Russian-led plan presented at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan this past May.

Under the terms of the agreement, food, medicine and other aid supplies were to enter north Homs via Russian-supervised checkpoints starting on Monday. The deal also called for the release of detainees held by the Syrian regime.

On Wednesday, Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik reported that Russian soldiers had begun delivering humanitarian aid, including “food supplies,” into the enclave.

But on the ground, civilians and a citizen journalist in communication with the opposition’s negotiating team told Syria Direct that the aid has yet to reach them, and regime-held detainees have not been released.

Meanwhile, a second group of opposition negotiators—separate from the Cairo delegation—reportedly met with Russian soldiers at a checkpoint outside the enclave earlier this week to discuss the terms of a new deal that would supersede last week’s ceasefire agreement.

Tuesday’s proposed deal—shared with Syria Direct by a north Homs activist in contact with the opposition negotiators—seemingly takes aim at the Cairo delegation, calling for the “cancelling of the roles of all mediators abroad” in implementing a ceasefire.

 Aftermath of an airstrike in encircled northern Homs on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Homs Media Center

The Tuesday deal focuses almost exclusively on the release of regime-held detainees, a long-time sticking point for negotiations in Homs province.

Samer Suleiman, the activist who shared the agreement, added that Russian forces on Thursday were moving to set up a negotiations room, with plans to meet with north Homs opposition officials again this coming Sunday. Syria Direct could not independently confirm his claims.

Russian state media has not reported on Tuesday’s revised ceasefire proposal, though Syrian pro-opposition news website Micro Syria published photos on Wednesday purporting to show Russian soldiers meeting with north Homs opposition negotiators in a tent just outside the enclave.

Opposition negotiators did not respond to Syria Direct’s request for comment.

Amid the airstrikes on Thursday, residents within the targeted north Homs towns expressed pessimism that the newest agreement—if implemented—could bring them any more respite than last week’s signed ceasefire.

“The bombs will start again,” Bassam al-Homsi, a citizen journalist in al-Houla, a region in the western part of the enclave told Syria Direct.

Al-Homsi described an “atmosphere of fear” on Thursday as warplanes targeted his town, killing at least one civilian. “The streets here are empty due to the intensity of the bombings.”

“People are watching [for airstrikes] and announcing over the mosques’ loudspeakers that everyone needs to stay out of the streets and keep safe,” he added.

The newest round of bombardment follows a brief period of relief, he said, as “residents rejoiced in [last week’s] de-escalation agreement.”

“But now, with the Syrian warplanes bombing the area, that joy has been squandered.” 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.