Syrian rebels and government forces have started observing a 10-day truce in the last rebel-held area of the central city of Homs, marking another setback for opposition fighters, activists said.

Government forces had blockaded al-Waar for 20 months, only sporadically allowing in food. It is not clear how many civilians remain in the sprawling area separated from the rest of the city by the Orontes River.

Activist Beibars al-Tilawi said officials promised to allow the UN to deliver more food while the two sides discussed how to end the stand-off. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the truce.

Mr al-Tilawi, who spoke from al-Waar by Skype, said the rebels were outgunned, and that the experience of fighters once holed up Homs’s Old City was instructive: the area was destroyed, thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee, and ultimately rebels negotiated their surrender in May last year.

“They want to prevent Syrian forces from targeting the al-Waar area with military action, so it won’t be like the Old City of Homs, where in the end, negotiations and diplomacy solved the problem,” Mr al-Tilawi said.

He said the rebels could end up surrendering the area to government forces or remain there under a more lasting deal. Both approaches have been employed in other parts of Syria in the past.

Western diplomats and local officials have championed local truces as a way of easing the suffering caused by Syria’s four-year conflict, which the UN estimates has killed 220,000 people. But critics say the truces reward Syrian government forces for blockading civilians and that the government does not always live up to its obligation to allow the regular delivery of food and other aid.

Western-backed rebels have been retreating in northern Syria for months, caught between government forces on one side and jihadi groups like Islamic State and the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front on the other.

Russia, a key ally of President Bashar Assad, is hoping to bring the government and the opposition together in a January 26 meeting to agree on the basis of a future dialogue.

Most opposition groups, including the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, have said they will not attend the Moscow talks, saying the framework for the discussions is unclear and the meetings have little chance of success.

In an interview with the Czech newspaper Literarni Noviny, Assad said the two sides would discuss the foundations for a dialogue focusing on Syria’s unity, fighting terrorism and supporting the army.

“As to what I expect from this meeting, I think we should be realistic since we are dealing with personalities,” Assad said. “If we succeed, it’s a good thing. If we don’t, we will not lose anything.”

In Geneva, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura urged the international community to make 2015 the year in which movement towards a political settlement of the conflict takes place. He welcomed the Moscow initiative, but also pushed his idea for a so-called “freeze” in fighting in the northern city of Aleppo.

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