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Why Syria’s Future Could Hinge on Homs Ceasefire

Image: Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs

Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs on Friday. YAZAN HOMSY / Reuters

Homs has been at the heart of Syria’s revolution and its civil war for three years.

It’s not where fighting began but anything that happens in Homs carries enormous weight, which is one reason why a three-day ceasefire there to allow civilians out and food in is so important.

Stop fighting in Homs and the light of a distant truce glimmers, if only for a few days.

For all sides in this complex conflict Homs is as much symbol as battlefield: Lose Homs and you risk losing the war.

Stop fighting in Homs and the light of a distant truce glimmers, if only for a few days.

News that civilians will finally leave the rebel held Old City after nearly two years under siege is an acknowledgement by Syria’s army and government that not all those under fire are “terrorists” as they constantly insist.

The evacuation of the sick, vulnerable and sometimes starving civilians is part of a deal, the second part of which should allow food parcels and medicines to reach a part of the city that lies in ruins after all the fighting.

It is not known exactly how many civilians are trapped in the Old City, but it’s thought to be around 2,500.

Image: Destruction in Homs, Syria
Damaged buildings line a street in the besieged area of Homs, Syria, on Jan. 27. YAZAN HOMSY / Reuters

If Homs Gov.Talal al-Barazi is right, and 200 people are evacuated, that means one-tenth of the besieged population will be gone after the weekend.

The food aid that goes in after these people come out, is a significant concession, as the army believes it is also likely to be used to feed the rebels they are fighting.

This would allow the second round of peace talks to begin in Geneva on Monday with a first, and important, success.

The first round ended in deadlock, with the two sides trading insults and accusations. There was no agreement to relieve the suffering of the innocents in Homs.

When the Syrian Government and rebel delegations sit down again next week at their plush Swiss hotel, they will have one success under their belts.

Food parcels to relieve the suffering of Syria’s third-largest city may be the first step to building trust and a peace in a country that has been stripped of both.

It may not seem much. But one side wants to kill Bashar Assad, Syria’s Alawite president who is pitted against the largely Sunni Muslim rebels. The other side, led by the president, who is also the army commander in chief, wants to kill every rebel in sight.

But hopes aren’t high that the peace talks can solve anything, even after the goodwill gestures in Homs. The slaughter and suffering continues and stokes more flames of hatred.

Well over 100,000 are thought to have died in the course of the civil war, although the United Nations stopped counting at the end of last year because it could not keep an accurate count. One Syrian group that has tried to collate figures estimates 130,00 dead.

Syria’s Newest Threat: Starvation 3:23

The fighting has displaced one-third of the population of 23 million. Around 200,000 people are trapped by war and siege, the vast majority in rebel-held areas by forces loyal to Assad.

And more recently, NBC News has reported that Syrian civilians in Homs have resorted to eating wild plants and weeds to stave off starvation.

But for the two sides to agree to anything, however small, and even in one city, represents progress.

The diplomatic road to peace sometimes takes strange paths.

Pingpong diplomacy and presents of pandas smoothed the impasse between China and the West 40 years ago. Food parcels to relieve the suffering of Syria’s third-largest city may be the first step to building trust and a peace in a country that has been stripped of both.