Everyone agrees that what happened recently in Homs constitutes a turning point for the current conflict in Syria. But where are things heading?
Months ago, the blockade on the central neighborhoods of Homs became unbearable and the residents were left to their fate. It was clear that Homs would fall militarily and that the welcoming environment provided to the militants could not endure. Amid this situation, UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi raised an important issue during the second round of Geneva II talks, when he noted the absence of any inclination from either parties for negotiations over a political solution. Yet he did not succeed in convincing them that a partial solution for a symbolic city like Homs could lay the foundation for a third round of negotiations, knowing that there is currently no possibility for it to be held.
It is clear that the authorities had no interest in including the blockade on Homs in international political talks. Homs had already fallen militarily and was considered a part of the “[strategically] useful” territories that were under the thumb of the regime, except that they did not have full control over the pro-regime militias in some of the neighborhoods. In fact, these militias had violated many previous truce attempts. However, the question is, whether including the issue of Homs in the negotiations or insisting on negotiating only over “the consensual structure of the fully competent rule with the authority” was in the best interest of the opposition’s delegation, regardless of the level of its representation.
A dilemma resides in the answer to this question. What the opposition would gain from negotiations over Homs was humanitarian more than political. Such negotiations could even inflict some political loss because the opposition would have had to let go of its primary aim: toppling the regime. Yet, would the opposition have really lost in the long term had it prioritized human needs over political goals?
In the phase after the failure of the Geneva II talks, intensive rounds of negotiations took place on the ground to find a way out of the unbearable situation. Negotiations took place between the residents and militants on the one hand, and the former and pro-regime forces on the other. These negotiations were based on keeping the residents and militants in Homs and implementing the truce, in the form of what was called “reconciliation,” which took place in the surrounding villages of Damascus. Negotiations teetered for a long time without any decision being taken, and swayed according to how powerful or weak each party felt.
Then, the breach came from outside Homs. A key armed faction that is present throughout Syria concluded, with the support of a Gulf state, an agreement with the authority and pro-regime militias separately and with direct Iranian and Russian backing. This agreement was concluded between the influential actors on the Syrian scene and not necessarily between the authority and local militants. It also comprised other areas in Syria (relief for Nebel and Zahra and the abductors of Latakia) and the exchange of international detainees.
Certainly, this agreement was not sudden or swift. It was time-consuming given the large number of actors involved. Also, it is hard to imagine no US engagement, otherwise a visit of the National Coalition’s delegation and the inauguration of a bureau in the United States while the Homs deal was being sealed cannot be understood. Otherwise, this deal would have seemed as though it was surrender.
This means that the tragedy of Homs has laid the foundation for the first large-scale local, regional and international negotiation. Homs, the capital of the revolution, was also the heart of the Syrian crisis in its military, political and sectarian dimensions.
This negotiation will lay the foundation for post-Homs Syria. This deal is a lot more important than the release of the Maaloula nuns because in this case the bet was on what would happen next in Qalamoun so that Lebanon would not erupt in crisis. In fact, there is an implicit regional and international agreement to keep Lebanon away from the crisis, and for Syria to control its borders.
Following [the recent agreement in] Homs, all parties will follow up on the return of residents to their destroyed houses and neighborhoods, and the behavior of the pro-regime militias in Homs after their rivals were sent away, in addition to the relationship between the latter and the army and security forces. The restructuring of the armed opposition factions, and the battles in Aleppo and its surroundings, will also be followed up.
The view of post-Homs Syria does not reside in the risk of Syria being divided, since it was dismembered a long time ago. It resides in whether regional countries have started to fear the ongoing raging war. In fact, there are indications of this fear as Turkey, Jordan and Iraq are gradually closing their borders with Syria. This view is also related to the possibility that these countries have started to work on finding a formula to stop the war and fighting the risk which the United States has described as greater than what happened in Afghanistan, knowing that this risk is threatening the national security of these countries. The view of post-Homs Syria, therefore, does not reside in the fact that President Bashar al-Assad is running for another term — even though it contradicts the [revised] constitution drafted [in 2012] — because the mere fact that he presented his candidacy is in itself a provocation that flares up the war, without which Assad cannot continue in rule.
The turning point of post-Homs constitutes a foundation for what the Gulf countries and Iran could agree upon, based on what Syrians would agree upon, to stop the war. History has taught the Syrians to come up with solutions to keep their unity or restore it, even if it is gradual.
The consolation for the residents of Homs is that they constituted and still constitute a fateful crossroad, and are indeed the heart of Syria.
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