Assad Troops Retake Homs, Symbol Of Syria's Uprising

Syrian rebels have pulled out the central city of Homs, which was known as the birthplace of the uprising against the government. Forces backing President Assad have retaken the town.

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The siege of a Syrian city is coming to an end. The city is Homs. It's a city where people rose up against President Bashar al-Assad after 2011. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed when it became a shooting war. The American journalist Marie Colvin was killed there. And as we heard on this program last year, building-to-building fighting went on for years. Today, the last rebels in the city center are surrendering, and they will be evacuated.

NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Amid hustle and commotion, fighters board buses and cattle trucks to leave the old city of Homs under United Nations escort. This video, uploaded by activists, shows the first group leaving the enclave. By day's end, state media said 980 people had left, the bulk of rebels and civilians left in this opposition bastion.

BEBARS AL-TALAWI: (Through translator) Now, we're coming out of a siege, but we spent beautiful days in our city.

FORDHAM: That's Bebars al-Talawi, an activist among the evacuees, reached via Skype. He tells me rebels and hundreds of civilian supporters endured around two years besieged by Assad's forces. At first, they scavenged abandoned houses for food, smuggled in bullets through secret tunnels. Gradually, supply routes were cut off. Food ran out.

AL-TALAWI: (Through Translator) We'll remember that we remained steadfast for 21 months, and that the regime was never able to storm the area.

FORDHAM: They just about held off Assad's forces. But, starving and desperate, they began thrashing out a deal with the regime under the supervision of the United Nations and - according to rebels - the Iranians, who back Assad. The fighters promised to allow aid into pro-Assad villages they have surrounded in the north of the country. They promised to release prisoners there. In return, the besieged rebels were allowed to leave Homs without being arrested or having to give up their weapons.

Talawi, the activist, was among some who frame this as a victory, or at least not a total defeat.

AL-TALAWI: (Through translator) Today on the ground, the regime is occupying the area, but the battle isn't over. The rebels will return to liberate the city.

FORDHAM: That's not the way Assad's officials see it. Talal al-Barazi, the governor of Homs, told state television he'll declare Old Homs a secure area today. According to him, 70 prisoners held by rebels are now released, among them five women and 17 children.

But some believe that although the rebels have surrendered, Assad cannot claim a total victory.

SALMAN SHAIKH: We are in a hurting stalemate, I would say, in this conflict, even though the headlines are telling us that the Assad regime is winning. In certain cases, it may well be, but if you look at Homs, no one's won. The amount of destruction there, it's absolutely astounding.

FORDHAM: Salman Shaikh is an analyst with the Brookings Institution in Qatar. He says no one faction is in control of Homs now.

SHAIKH: It is a symbol of why Syria today is a failed state, and there is no overall central governing authority.

FORDHAM: Shaikh adds that what comes next for rebels depends on what support they get. The pullout from old Homs comes just after a new push by the U.S. to help some rebel groups. Advanced missiles have headed to a few fighters, with America's tacit approval.

But the head of the political opposition, Ahmad al-Jarba, says Assad's air force in particular is still making the life of the Syrians a nightmare. He spoke in Washington this week, and had meetings with U.S. officials. But the Obama administration is still very reluctant to supply anti-aircraft missiles, lest they fall into the hands of extremist groups.

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FORDHAM: Meantime, Syrians will see more of this in the next few weeks. It's a rally celebrating the president in the city of Lattakia, broadcast on pro-Assad TV.

Assad is one of three candidates standing in presidential elections next month, and has made very public appearances in territories his forces have recently retaken, like the Christian town of Maaloula. And with every Assad election poster that goes up in Homs, the days when it was the capital of the revolution seem more distant.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

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