The siege of Homs is over. After a confused and ominous 24-hour news cycle, the Syrian rebels have made a "tactical withdrawal" from the restive neighborhood of Baba Amr, which withstood a month of rocket fire, drone-guided artillery shelling, and possibly even helicopter gunship attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's security forces.
But the rebels' withdrawal was not a total defeat. As of March 1, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could still boast that it had kept some 7,000 soldiers from Maher al-Assad's elite 4th Division at bay on Baba Amr's outskirts, a claim that appeared corroborated by eyewitness accounts. One Homsi in an adjoining district told me last night, Feb. 29, via Skype that tanks were moving in and out of his street in a violent attempt to enter Baba Amr. They'd failed.
Although Baba Amr's fall was inevitable, the snow and freezing cold cast an image of a Levantine Stalingrad in the making. Electricity and water have been shut off in large parts of Homs -- a city of 1 million people -- for the past three days. Food is scarce, prompting the United Nations to fret about mass starvation.
What happens to the civilians in Baba Amr now, particularly with communication lines cut and no YouTube clips being uploaded, is up to the Assad regime's totalitarian imagination. The regime has apparently given the International Committee of the Red Cross the green light to send in humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded on March 2. Clearly, this step is designed to lend the impression that the armed rebels were responsible for Baba Amr's misfortunes all along. Sources inside the neighborhood, however, say that a "bloodbath" is currently taking place. Seventeen civilians have been beheaded or partially beheaded by security forces, the activist organization Avaaz said March 1.
With the destruction of the opposition's stronghold in Homs, Syria's revolutionaries aren't going to melt into thin air. U.S. and European policymakers might like to believe that Homsis wake up each morning and consult the writings of Gene Sharp, but the bulk of the opposition now recognizes that the revolution must be accomplished through arms and that returning to the passive resistance of eight months ago would amount to a suicide pact.
After all, it's Assad -- not the revolutionaries -- who transformed this into an armed conflict in the first place. The original peaceful protest movement, which originally called for "reforms," was met with wanton acts of brutality. Nor have most Syrians forgotten that 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, an early rallying symbol for the revolution, wasn't carrying a Kalashnikov when Assad's security forces kidnapped him and then delivered his mutilated corpse back to his parents.
Would these security forces and their shabiha mercenaries promise not to arrest, torture, or shoot at more men, women, and children if the opposition disarmed? If so, who'd believe them? Tens of thousands of civilian fighters and military defectors are fanned out all over Syria at present -- will they be granted "amnesty" to trade their guns in for slogans calling for the toppling of the regime?