BEIRUT A ceasefire deal that has taken hold in the last rebel-held district of the Syrian city of Homs is a good model to build on, and such agreements could help promote a nationwide truce, a senior United Nations official told Reuters.
Under the deal praised by Yacoub El Hillo, U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, 300 insurgents left an area of Homs held by rebels this week while others were able to stay.
El Hillo said people in Al Waer district must now feel the benefit of the deal negotiated directly between the government and rebels. Damascus, for example, must let them resume normal lives through free movement while allowing more aid in.
"Nobody in their right mind - civilians - would want fighters or the government to go back to fighting. And here is where I think 60,000 people living in Al Waer will become the protectors of the agreement when they begin to feel the peace dividend," he said in a telephone interview.
The Homs deal has put new focus on local truces as a possible peacemaking tool, with revived diplomatic efforts aiming for a nationwide ceasefire to halt the nearly five-year-long conflict that has killed an estimated 250,000 people.
The evacuated fighters were moved north to a rebel-held area in the city of Idlib.
To date in the war, such truces have mostly been seen as a means for the government to force surrender on its opponents in besieged areas. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama said on Dec. 1 that such agreements may start appearing in pockets around Syria, linking progress in the revived political track.
The intensified diplomacy has followed a Russian military intervention on the side of President Bashar al-Assad. Russian warplanes are staging air strikes in support of ground offensives that have targeted areas including northern Homs.
El Hillo spoke to Reuters after attending the first phase of the deal. A total of 486 civilians left Al Waer with the fighters, travelling in government-supplied buses to Idlib. El Hillo accompanied the convoy for part of the journey.
"So far - and having been exposed to many of these trials in Syria - I think this represents a truly good model to build upon, and not necessarily to just replicate, but to build upon," El Hillo said, describing the cooperation between the two sides to the agreement as exemplary. "That again gives one hope that they are serious about this."
The deal was negotiated between government officials and a committee including armed groups from Al Waer. Later phases stipulate that fighters still in Al Waer - who are estimated to number several thousand - must surrender heavy weapons while letting them keep their light arms.
The police will also return to Al Waer.
"All the options are there. For fighters wishing to continue being opponents but without allowing for this to take the neighbourhood back to where it came from, that (option) is there," El Hillo said.
"I don't want to paint a picture that the government has all of a sudden become so lenient. The talks were tough, but I think there was seriousness on the part of the government also to get this right ... because what is the alternative? The alternative is to go back to fighting."
Homs, a centre of protest when the 2011 uprising erupted, is one of the most heavily damaged of Syrian cities. It was one of the first places where street protests turned into an armed revolt. The damage suffered in Al Waer is less comprehensive than elsewhere in the city, El Hillo said.
Local ceasefires have also been concluded elsewhere in Syria recently. One of them, brokered with support from Iran and Turkey, halted fighting in the town of Zabadani at the Lebanese border, and in two villages in the northwest.
Like the Al Waer ceasefire, that deal allows for rebels - around 900 of them - to move to Idlib, though this clause has yet to be implemented. Another recent ceasefire near Damascus also resulted in 118 fighters being moved to Idlib.
"There is on the table now about 60 or so such experiments. Some of them are holding, some of them have collapsed, some of them are being talked about or rumoured. But I think from here we need to be much more robust, much more bold in saying this is the only game in town for the time being," El Hillo said.
"The agreement is calling for people to stay and not to leave, and that is important in the context of Homs," El Hillo said, referring to displacement of communities along sectarian lines that has taken place there in the war.
"It is extremely important the Al Waer deal succeeds because it will be a central piece in keeping the balance of the city, demographically speaking, but also hopefully pave the way for the return of those who in past times lived in Al Waer."
(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by David Stamp)