Syrian insurgents agree to deal to leave longtime stronghold in Homs

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BEIRUT -- Syria's third-largest city, Homs, was one of the first to hold large demonstrations against President Bashar Assad. Protesters there were among the first to take up arms against the state, and Homs neighborhoods were the first to suffer indiscriminate bombardment by government forces.

Homs long stood as a bellwether for a nation slowly, brutally, unraveling. A diverse community increasingly split along sectarian lines as populations fled, neighborhoods were destroyed and rebels held out in the Old City.

On Wednesday, the last insurgent-held neighborhoods of the Old City appeared to be falling to the government, as the last fighters and their families began to evacuate under a deal freighted with symbolism for both sides. The government seeks to prove that through brute force and local talks, it can retake a major urban area. For its opponents, handing over enclaves that withstood a nearly two-year blockade is an emotional blow.

But the deal was less than a full victory for the government, or a complete defeat for the rebels. The fighters were allowed to flee with light weapons to a safe haven where they vowed to continue the battle. The deal did little to head off the fragmentation of the country as both sides continue to refuse a broad negotiated settlement to a war that has taken more than 150,000 lives.

Even as insurgents fled, their representatives were in Washington pleading for weapons to shoot down government aircraft. And the Syrian government was preparing to reaffirm Assad's hold on power by staging an election.

"We are not asking our friends to send their sons to our country, and we are also not asking for a direct intervention, even one from the air," Ahmad Assi al-Jarba, who leads the Syrian opposition coalition, said in an interview Tuesday night in Washington.

"We are asking for anti-aircraft weapons in order to neutralize these planes, which are throwing the barrel bombs on us," he added, referring to bombs, used by the Syrian air force, made from barrels filled with shrapnel and explosives. "And we have plans and guarantees that these weapons will not fall into the wrong hands."

Mr. Jarba also confirmed reports that Syrian rebels had received American TOW anti-tank missiles and said the shipment had enabled the opposition to demonstrate that it was able to use and maintain control of advanced U.S. weaponry.

Mr. Jarba, who is visiting Washington for the first time, plans to meet with a senior Pentagon official, leading members of Congress and Secretary of State John Kerry. A White House official said President Barack Obama was expected to see him.

In an effort to present a unified front to the Americans, Mr. Jarba is accompanied by Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, the new leader of the military wing of the Syrian opposition.

The opposition has long pressed for anti-aircraft weapons to blunt the government's advantage in the air, but U.S. officials have been concerned that the weapons might fall into the hands of extremists.

Meanwhile, the Homs deal, worked out between security officials and rebel representatives in the presence of Iran's ambassador to Syria, also calls for insurgents in Aleppo province, to the north, to lift their long-standing blockade of two villages, activists briefed by rebel negotiators said.

If the pact holds, it could be the most complex and far-reaching yet struck between combatants in the conflict. International peace talks have failed. Local cease-fires percolating around the country are shaky and disputed. The government calls them reconciliation but opponents see them as surrender to tactics of starvation and indiscriminate bombing.

The Homs deal offers no comprehensive way forward for a country that has suffered more than three years of fighting, with millions forced from their homes. It does nothing to address government opponents' underlying political grievances, deepened by the crackdown, or the mass displacement of residents, or the shell shock of a city turned upside down.

By Wednesday afternoon, there were signs that the agreement extended beyond Homs. Pro-government websites reported that insurgents had released 15 government soldiers in Aleppo and some of the more than 100 women and children from the minority Alawite sect held hostage in coastal Latakia province.

Although the power dynamic in Homs was lopsided, with insurgents isolated and hungry, the government was motivated by its desire to showcase Homs as proof that it can settle the conflict locally without the need for international peace talks, and to declare the city safe for elections that are dismissed by opponents as a charade.



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