May 22, 2014
By Kristen Gillespie and Osama Abu Zeid
AMMAN: For months, observers had predicted the fall of rebel-held Homs, where a few thousand fighters and civilians were holed up under the unrelenting combination of regime blockade and bombardment.
Known among the Syrian opposition as the “capital of the revolution,” Homs stood as a symbol of steadfastness amidst recent rebel defeats, including the strategic town of al-Qusayr, ceasefires in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus as well as the towns in the Qalamoun mountain range along the Lebanese border.
With periodic bombardments from the air and ground, fighters and the civilians inside the perimeter of a total blockade that began in June 2012 had nowhere to go but underground. Many in the 13 districts of Old Homs survived by digging tunnels and underground shelters, surviving on grass, leaves, olives and even reportedly stray animals roaming the streets.
Still, rebels held their ground, resulting in what became a months-long stalemate during which neither side advanced nor lost more than meters at a time as the bombings and blockade continued.
While the bombardment and regime encirclement that kept food and supplies from entering Old Homs helped tip the balance in favor of the regime, activists and fighters driven from the city in late April say it is the regime’s use of paranoia and infiltrators that could ultimately jeopardize the armed opposition’s goal of topping Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Why did the rebels abandon Homs? A weeks-long investigation reveals a “weak” revolutionary spirit, internal strife between rebels and the ability of the government to penetrate rebel ranks and sow paranoia that undercut the fragile front keeping Old Homs in the rebels’ column.
“Recent assassinations played a role [in the rebels’ loss of Homs], indicating that the regime had infiltrated the rebel-controlled areas,” said Khudair Kheshfeh, 30, an activist who recently left Old Homs for the opposition-controlled north of the province.
Internally displaced Syrians return to Old Homs following the truce.
In late March, a string of assassinations and bombings inside the neighborhoods – including the assassination of a revered Dutch priest who had spent decades in the city, along with the car-bombing of a rebel headquarters – had made clear that hunger was not the rebels’ only foe.
“A lack of security and trust followed the assassinations,” said Raed, an opposition fighter who left Homs in early April, one of hundreds the government jubilantly reported had reached an agreement to lay down arms. “There were people carrying out assassinations for the regime.”
Reports emerged from both regime and opposition media of individual fighters surrendering themselves, broken by not only hunger, but also crumbling trust in one another amidst assassinations and defections.
The numbers varied, ranging from 1 to 40 fighters per day depending on which side was reporting, but it was clear by the end of March the rebels faced the additional problems of even fewer fighters along with regime informants in their midst.
“Some people felt weak and surrendered themselves, mostly for reasons we can excuse,” said Abu al-Joud, head of the pro-opposition Homs al-Hadath online news network, adding that “they could not bear the food scarcity.”
Local activists also cite a lack of trust between fighters and commanders, particularly the schism between those inside the blockade and outside it.
“We had no knowledge of the fate that our leaders were steering us toward,” said Raed. “We felt that they had failed to save Homs.”
“They don’t listen to each other, nor to people outside,” said Hadid Shufan Abu Nazeih, a civilian from Homs who, along with other citizens in the blockade, had publicly protested rebel intransigence. “They are fundamentally fighters,” said Abu Nazeih, who left Homs in April under UN supervision.
Even civilians who remained, for reasons or family, health or simply out of principle, grew weary.
“What I have seen since leaving the siege is that Homs’s civilians have begun to distance themselves from the revolutionary mindset; they are now simply trying to live, nothing more,” says activist Orhan Gazi, who left Old Homs in accordance with the truce.
“Public support for the revolution in Homs is very weak.”
Fighters inside the blockade regularly noted the lack of help from fighters north of the city as well as the Syrian National Coalition. “That’s why some wanted a truce,” said Feras, an activist who left the blockaded district of Jourat al-shish when it returned to regime control earlier this month.
“We will not forget that the revolutionaries of al-Waer and the northern countryside did not conduct any military operations on the ground aiming to break the siege,” says Bebars a-Talawi, one of Homs’s most well-known citizen journalists, now based in al-Waer.
“Therefore, we have witnessed disappointment both within the city and outside it.”
Heavy fighting and bombardment have devastated large swathes of Syria’s third-largest city.
The more than 2,000 Old Homs rebels left the district escorted by the UN on May 7 in accordance with a ceasefire agreement hailed by the regime that allowed rebel fighters to relocate, along with their light weaponry, from the long-besieged Old City to opposition-held territory in northern Homs province.
At the time, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi described a “positive, optimistic atmosphere” as the truce was set to take effect, promising “a major breakthrough restoring a state of security and stability, devoid of fighters and guns.”
For both sides, which have fought so hard for so long, the truce was not easy.
In mid-April, the government intensified shelling after negotiations between the two sides for a wider settlement broke down. Rebels, who had agreed to withdraw to the rebel-held northern Homs suburbs, insisted they bring their weapons.
Rebels and government troops agreed to a tentative 72-hour ceasefire as the two sides hammered out the details of a deal in which rebels would withdraw from Old Homs to rebel-controlled northern Homs province, while the government would allow humanitarian aid into the nearby government-encircled, rebel-held district of al-Waer.
The deal broke down, and regime shelling on the neighborhoods resumed. But the pro-Assad National Defense Forces militia was still unable to enter the 13 neighborhoods.
Rebels quickly countered, seizing the neighborhood of Jeb al-Jandali on April 20 in their first tangible advance out of the encircled neighborhoods in 679 days. But they withdrew just as quickly, citing a “a lack of manpower.”
The government advanced just dozens of meters in Old Homs in mid-April, in the neighborhoods of Jourat a-Shiah and Wadi Sayeh.
“The area we are covering is very small, so we do not need thousands of fighters,” said Abu al-Joud, head of the Homs al-Hadath news network inside Old Homs, in mid-April.
But it was clear to people inside the blockade that time was running out. The blockade stopped the flow of heavy weapons into the city; rebels could only use weapons that were already in place.
“For rebels, staying in Homs is a slow suicide,” Khaled, a doctor working in a rebel-held field hospital in the Old City, told Syria Direct in March, as rumors of a possible truce began to leak out.
On the regime’s side, the inability to capture Old Homs after the fresh offensive in mid-April convinced even the hardline NDF, which was initially against the truce, “that current conditions would not allow them to enter Homs militarily, and that the only way to enter would be through renewed negotiations,” says Hassan Abu a-Zain, a 28-year-old spokesman for Homs’s Youth Council.
Fighters withstood two years of regular bombardment, starvation, a blockade and what they perceived as betrayals from their colleagues outside Homs. The final blow, it seems, came when regime agents penetrated rebel ranks and they began to turn on each other. Activist Khudair Kheshfeh says the paranoia, ultimately, did more damage to the rebel cause than any number of shells and bombs.
“The regime began sowing fitna [internal division], and this was the most dangerous weapon of all, to be honest.”
Elizabeth Parker-Magyar contributed reporting.
-Photos courtesy of Homs After the Return.
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