Can Russian Presence Be Least of Evils in Opposition Stronghold?
[This is the outcome of an ongoing partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy Russia (oDR) that aims to shed light on the social and economic repercussions of the Russian military intervention in both countries].
(Al-Waer, Homs) Perspectives on the Russian soldiers in Al-Waer neighborhood, west of Homs, vary between welcoming them on the one hand, judging by their good treatment of residents compared to the regime’s soldiers and allied Shiite militants, and the absolute rejection of their presence on the other.
Perhaps it was the conjunction of Russian Air Force intervention in Syria on September 30, 2015, along with the ensuing military escalation in September and October against al-Waer neighborhood — then the last stronghold of the armed opposition in Homs — that has contributed to further disdain and rejection of the Russians. In Waer, however, the intervention took a different form at a later stage, when repeated rounds of negotiations between the two conflicting parties were mediated by Russia, and were concluded by a settlement agreement on March, 13, 2017. Unsurprisingly, this agreement was only reached after intense air raids and tightened blockade against Al-Waer, eventually forcing the armed factions to succumb to the terms of the settlement providing their safe departure in batches.
These departures took place under Russian patronage between March and late May of 2017. It is estimated that the number of exiles exceeded 20,000 civilians and militants, who have then been scattered across the opposition-controlled regions of Jarablus, Idlib and Homs northern countryside. As such, it was the Russian involvement that turned a most painful page in Al-Waer insurgency.
The Truth on the Russian Role in Displacement
The waves of exodus from al-Waer evoked outcries of indignation by the Syrian opposition abroad, holding the Russians responsible for forcibly displacing the neighborhood’s civilians.
This accusation is rather exaggerated, however, according to Abu Hashem[i], a member of the Negotiating Committee that had represented the leaders of the rebel factions and the Local Council at the time. While the Russians were most interested in returning the neighborhood to the regime at all costs, they did not plan to displace civilian population. “Yes, the Russians have politically excluded and displaced all those opposed to the regime, but to be honest, they wished for civilians who accepted the regime’s regained control to stay.”
Abu Hashem emphasized that, since the Homs representative of the Hmeimim-based Russian Reconciliation Center, Colonel Sergey, was assigned to oversee the negotiations, and during the two weeks leading up to the final settlement, members of the Negotiating Committee were repeatedly asked to organize a meeting with the besieged population in Al-Furn Square – which separated the opposition-controlled areas from the regime forces – in order to encourage them to stay and opt for settlement rather than departure. The Russian side even preferred that rebels surrender their weapons and remain in their neighborhood. This was reiterated by Colonel Sergey himself in an interview to Al-Ouruba newspaper.
Abu Hashem admitted that the Committee had purposely selected members loyal to the factions’ leaders to meet with the Russians while claiming to represent the civilians of the neighborhood. “We kept the Russian side’s request from the civilians. We didn’t want the Russians to capitalize on people’s weakened state and near collapse and achieve a media victory at the expense of their suffering,” added Abu Hashem.
“The Russians knew that there was a setup and that we were deceiving them. But they simply complained and ceased to meet with the alleged representatives of Al-Waer population. But they couldn’t reach out to the actual population and reassure them, given their popular perception as notorious partners in the bloodshed and bombardment of the neighborhood.”
During this critical juncture of intensive negotiation rounds, the Committee’s propaganda outdid the Russian one, especially in the light of the brutal campaign the neighborhood had just been enduring, with people still fearfully confined in shelters.
Further compounding the people’s fears was the uncertainty surrounding the negotiations, and hence their fate. “The negotiation rounds went on without the Committee bothering to explain any details or reassuring us about our fate in the neighborhood,” said Abdur-Rahman (31), a media activist and one of the young men who had left for Idlib. “This largely exacerbated the confusion and panic of civilians, and contributed to their willingness to accept any other option than the return of bombardment.”
Right after the announcement of the agreement to hand over control of the neighborhood, and following two rough weeks for civilians in shelters, the armed factions began encouraging people to depart, according to Abdur-Rahman. They spread rumors that those who remain in the neighborhood may do so at their own responsibility and must bear any possible or even probable retaliation, as they put it, by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. People, including Abdur-Rahman himself, were quick to scramble to register their names on the lists of departees to Idlib, Jarablus, and Homs northern countryside.
“If you stay, the Russians and the Iranians will kill you. They will cut you to pieces then pillage your property…” This slogan was widely disseminated and served to spread terror among the residents. One such resident was Umm Khalid, a mother of three who opted to leave for Jarablus with her children for fear of “reprisals by the Russians and Shiites,” as she put it.
Growing Acceptance and Varying Perspectives
Umm Khalid’s sentence is revealing about the extent to which people under siege often perceive the regime and its allies as a single entity: Russia, Iran, and the regime are all seen as equal partners in crime and terror.
On March 18, 2017, the first batch of exiles departed amidst notable and unprecedented presence of the Russian military, who served as the guarantor and sponsor party to the agreement. It was an exceptional opportunity to provide a model of the disciplined and committed Russian soldier, which challenged the negative preconceptions people had about him.
Despite their apparent caution, Russian soldiers were far nicer and friendlier to people than the regime units stationed at checkpoints. They even distributed candy and cookies to the kids leaving with their families. What shocked everyone, however, was the sight of Russian soldiers publicly performing the Islamic prayer rites. Nobody had expected that, including the regime units themselves, who are forbidden to pray or perform any religious rites during the mandatory military service. Many people were relieved to learn that a considerable number of Russian recruits were [Sunni] Muslims like them, and were allowed to practice their faith freely within their military units.
“I was registered on the lists of departees to Idlib, with my final destination being Turkey. I was in the shelter along with my family during the hardest days of my life. The sound of aircrafts is still buzzing all around my head,” said Rami (45), a doctor and father of three children, and one of those who reversed their decision to leave the neighborhood.
“Just like others, I was quick to register my name. I was desperate and ready to accept anything other than death…” He paused, looking at his children playing the ball in the nearby yard, then he added: “Luckily my name was registered on a long waiting list. I had the opportunity to reconsider my options after the traumatizing bombardment was over. The friendly Russian soldiers at the checkpoint surprised me. I never thought they’re allowed to pray in public! They prayed normally on the road! Such an unfamiliar scene for Syrians to watch!”
“I felt as if fate was sending me a signal to stay in the neighborhood,” explained Rami. The behavior of Russian soldiers and their kindness to people in the buses, especially the kids, made him change his mind: “Thank God, my children and I have been unhurt ever since.”
As weekly batches continued until May 20, 2017, with Russians ensuring their safe arrival to their chosen destinations, and as Al-Waer restored its calm, with no incursions terrorizing its remaining civilians anymore, many locals, including some of those who had left, concluded that a “non-ideologized” party, even if seeking its own interests and allying with the regime, is still more preferable than a party seeking to forcibly impose its ideology and pursue demographic changes. As Rami remarked to SyriaUntold, “the Russians are far more merciful than the Iranians. I wish they stay in the neighborhood.”
This sense of ease was consolidated after positive steps were taken by the regime following the exodus. It opened Dawwar Al-Muhandisin crossing, which had remained closed throughout the siege with only few exceptions for visits during the truces. With Russian privates now overseeing their freedom of movement, people began to enter and exit the neighborhood without even having to produce their IDs, as had been the case at checkpoints. Furthermore, the neighborhood has not witnessed any arrest campaigns.
Such positive developments, in addition to the Russian commitment to monitoring the agreement, encouraged even the families that had left the neighborhood to Idlib and Jarablus to register for their return to Homs. Indeed, a return of 150 families was arranged in July 2017 under the auspices of the Governor of Homs Talal Barazi.
“I returned with my husband and four of my children. I left Ali because he is at the age of military service,” said Umm Ali, one of Al-Waer returnees and a mother of five children. When asked about the reasons of her initial departure, she replied: “I had a sixth son who had died as a result of the last bombing campaign. I feared that the rest might be killed or arrested. I couldn’t stand losing another.”
She noted that her fears stemmed mainly from the rumors promoted by the armed opposition leaders in the neighborhood. “They terrified us. They said ‘Your fate is murder or detention and you better leave with us.’ They stressed that life in Jarablus is much more comfortable and that the authorities there will guarantee us a decent livelihood,” she scornfully uttered the last few works, before adding, rather furiously: “And after we were embroiled in Jarablus they offered us no help whatsoever. They left us in tents and helped themselves to their comfortable lives.”
As for her return, Umm Ali explained: “When we were assured that the Russians were committed to the agreement, and that they were actually watching over the crossing leading into the neighborhood, and given the poor living conditions in our camp, we decided to return.”
Despite a growing number of those in favor of the Russian presence, whether out of outright loyalty or out of a view that they are the best alternative there is, people remain divided as to welcome them, and many still have strong reservations.
One of the latter is Rima (34), a civil activist who does not share the general impression that the Russian presence in Homs should be cheered. “I wouldn’t deny that I feel very comfortable if there is a Russian soldier at the checkpoint, as opposed to the regime soldiers or Hezbollah,” she said. “But he is still a soldier obeying command orders. This command has supported all of the regime’s hostilities against the neighborhood, including heavy bombardment and tight besiegement for years. Every aircraft passing over me reminds me that the Russians, no matter how kind they may seem on the ground, have once been partners in humiliating and bombing us.”
[Main photo: Russian Military Police patrolling Al-Waer neighborhood, Homs – 8-4-2017 (Mma Green Twitter account/Fair use. All rights reserved to the authors)].
[i] Pseudonyms were used for security reasons.