The View From Homs: Watching The Withdrawal Of Syria's Rebels

On Friday, the Syrian government evacuated the last of the rebel fighters from Homs, following a cease-fire agreement. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Nabih Bulos, a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

From the NPR West studios in Culver City, California it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. This week the city of Homs, often called the cradle of the Syrian uprising, fell to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Yesterday, the last of the rebels evacuated the city following a cease-fire agreement with the government and under the protection of the United Nations. Nabih Bulos is a special correspondent with the Los Angeles Times. He was in Homs when the first wave of rebels began to withdraw. He stopped by our studios and I asked him to describe what it was like.

NABIH BULOS: Just that day we went and we spoke to people in the Alawite neighborhood called Al-Zahra. And there you could see people being almost vitriolic in their hatred. I mean, they were saying that, why are we letting these people go? Why are they being let off so easy? And, in fact, in that particular day, I remember we sat there and you had some of these pr0-government militias trying to take pictures of the fighters or effectively looking menacing. And the idea was that the government had to stop them.

It was actually a strange situation and in that sense you could see the government was not this monolithic side that we think it is. But in the way that it's being spun it's actually quite interesting because you watch the fighters saying, we're going to come back. This is not a defeat. This is merely a hiatus. All we're doing is regrouping, reorganizing and we'll come back. And we will kiss the ground of Old Homs once again. They say that.

On the governmental side it depends. State media hails it as a victory. And, I mean, they're right, at some level it is. I mean, you're talking about the central state in Syria. And it's actually quite a large one. And if you control Homs, you control most of Syria in fact. It's very, very important. So this fall represents a huge loss for the revolution, I would say, and also for the rebels.

RATH: What were the other terms of the cease-fire?

BULOS: Well, the one from this week is different from the one that I saw a month ago. And the reason why is because this one is more about switching or perhaps transferring the area of the battle itself. If you think of it logically, if you look at what's happening in Old Homs, Old Homs, as an area, was very densely populated and it has a lot of buildings. It was the sort of fight that was very destructive and was pure urban guerilla warfare. And it's very hard to clear a building.

Once you have, for example, one or two fighters, it's really almost impossible to clear them, I mean, unless you have just overwhelming force and a lot of casualties. In fact, you know, I got to see this firsthand recently. When we were inside we went to a town called Ma'loula, which is on the road between Homs and Damascus. It's an old Christian town. And that town was recently the target of a massive campaign to, quote-unquote, "cleanse it of terrorists, again," quote-unquote.

And you had, I think, about 30 or 35 fighters converging on a building that only had three gunmen. And so, I mean, you could imagine, we're talking about an area that was just a building really. And you had 30 fighters converging on it and yet it was still a very difficult battle.

So the government is actually, I think, being somewhat intelligent about this because they have managed to move people to a more sparsely populated area. And that'll make the fight easier.

RATH: Otherwise it's going house to house like the U.S. forces did in Fallujah...

BULOS: Exactly.

RATH: ...10 years ago. And it's incredibly bloody and...

BULOS: Exactly. I mean, the costs in terms of, well, not just men but material and all this other stuff is huge. And this will make it, I think, a much easier fight for the army.

RATH: So what is Homs like right now?

BULOS: Well, it depends. I mean, we were there of course to cover, but I'll be honest with you, we went there to get cheese, of all things. Homs is famous for this sweet cheese that's used in desserts, sort of Arabic cheesecake.

It was almost surreal because here's this person selling kanafeh, which is a fantastic Arabic dessert. And literally a street away you have people firing. And you would just see kids playing on the street while their play is being punctuated with sounds of gunfire and just this sort of tough road-by-road, block-by-block fighting that is characteristic of this sort of fight. And it's very strange.

Parts of Old Homs, for example, where we had been recently, an area called Haldi, specifically, which is adjacent to the Old Homs that was involved in the most recent exchange, that area is effectively leveled. I use the word decimated not in its incorrect usage today but in its classic sense, which is to say that one out of 10. But in this case of course one out of 10 buildings remain. Other - I mean, everything else was just rubble. And you end up seeing just this huge level of devastation and you think to yourself, there's no way this can ever be rebuilt in the way it is now. They'll have to go in with a bulldozer, raze it to the ground and start again. They'll - yeah, they'll start from zero.

RATH: Nabih Bulos is a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He joined me here in the studios at NPR West. Nabih, thank you so much.

BULOS: Thank you.

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