The Syrian regime may be on the verge of an important gain in its civil war. Rebels say they have agreed to a conditional retreat from areas they hold in the city of Homs.
Opposition negotiators there, reached by Skype, say that under the deal they would leave battle-broken neighborhoods where they have been besieged for almost two years. More than 1,000 fighters are set to leave with their weapons and should be allowed to head to rebel-held territory north of the city.
In exchange, Syrian soldiers and their paramilitary supporters would regain control of almost all the rebellious areas of a city once known as the capital of the revolution.
A negotiator on the rebel side, who goes by the name Abu al-Harith, claims the regime would also receive Iranian hostages — military advisers to Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces who have been captured on a succession of battlefields and held in the city of Aleppo.
Rebel negotiators say the United Nations and Iranian diplomats helped broker the deal. U.N. offices in Syria and the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon did not respond to requests for confirmation. The truce was reported in pro-Assad media, though, without mention of the hostages.
The road to the deal has been extremely bloody. Abu al-Harith says a series of car bombs by the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra was a key factor in pushing the regime to make the truce. In the past week, about 100 civilians were killed in pro-government areas of Homs.
"You've seen the bombings," he says. "Those were the replies to the National Defense Forces [a pro Assad militia] who didn't want any truce."
Abu al-Harith hopes the retreat will happen in the next 48 hours.
"There are no winners or losers," he insists. But if the fighters do leave this bitterly fought-for territory, it will be the latest in a series of victories for Assad.