March 1, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
also afoot in the makeup of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the political
body designed to represent the opposition, to adapt to the new reality on the
ground. On March 1, the SNC established a "military bureau," consisting of
civilians and soldiers, to unify the armed opposition and coordinate weapons
delivery. The council's media spokesman, Ausama Monajed, responded to an email
inquiry asking who would sit on the new military bureau by stating that FSA
leader Riad al-Asaad, retired Brig. Gen. Akil Hashem, and Gen. Mustafa
al-Sheikh, and others "have [all] been contacted and [are] on board."
Reports, however, already suggest that Asaad wasn't
even consulted about the new bureau, and Hashem has declined to head the
organization due to an acrimonious argument with SNC President Burhan Ghalioun.
And more bad news: Turkey has refused to host the new bureau.
case, the military apparatus of the opposition has never trusted the aspiring
political leaders of the Syrian opposition. Asaad called the SNC "traitors" a
few weeks ago for not supporting the FSA and for "conspiring" with the Arab
League. Meanwhile, Sheikh recently tried to set up a rival "Higher
to steal Asaad's thunder.
who heads the SNC's military bureau, it's unclear whether it can actually unify
Syria's largely autonomous and atomized militias, which are increasingly manned
by civilians. Ghalioun was characteristically oblique in his Paris news conference about the SNC's military strategy, saying that the new bureau's job
would be "to protect those peaceful protesters and civilians."
exclusively defensive operations rather than offensive ones, which many rebels
unaffiliated with the FSA -- indeed, openly hostile to it -- have already
carried out in Damascus's suburbs and the northern province of Idlib.
decisions devised through the SNC's manic-depressive policymaking process, the
military bureau announcement was in response to the changing attitude of the
Syrian "street." And it's not the only change that followed the international
"Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia last Friday, Feb. 24. For starters, the conference
led to semi-recognition of the Syrian opposition by the
United States and the European Union, which dubbed the SNC "a
legitimate representative" of the Syrian people -- but not the sole
conference also led to Ghalioun's explicit offer to Syria's Kurds of a "decentralized" government in a post-Assad
state. This is crucial. Kurds constitute as much as 15 percent of the Syrian population, and they want the sort of autonomy their brethren enjoy in
Iraq. Ghalioun's overture was designed to forge a rapprochement with the
Kurdish National Council (KNC), a separate umbrella group made up of 11 Syrian Kurdish parties, which had suspended its membership in the SNC and
largely takes direction from Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. Two KNC
members told me at a conference in Copenhagen last week that "we can put a
million Kurds on the street" the minute their demands are satisfied. This
likely isn't an idle boast.
The Friends of Syria conference also
led to the formation of an angry breakaway movement within the SNC, called the
Syrian Patriotic Group, which is headed by longtime dissidents Haitham al-Maleh
and Fawaz Tello. Tello told me the other day that this faction wants to better
coordinate with the activists on the ground to bring their prescriptions for
winning the revolution in line with the SNC's foreign advocacy work. This faction
wants the SNC's 310-member General Assembly expanded to "500 or 600" seats to
make room for more grassroots activists inside Syria.
"What we are
pushing for is to make the base of the opposition broader and to make the SNC
more democratic," Tello said, adding that the SNC's main decision-making
bodies, the Secretariat General and Presidential Council, should be subject to
elections rather than appointments and reappointments made by Muslim
is progress, of a sort, though how it manifests within Syria remains to be
seen. Senior U.S. officials pontificating on
Capitol Hill would do well to remember that activists and rebels have never
waited for a by-your-leave from the U.S. State Department -- much less from
external opposition groups -- to decide how to defend themselves and their
submits to what some are calling an "occupation" by regime forces, the next
flashpoint could be Idlib, whole swaths of which are rebel-controlled and which
benefits from easy resupply from Turkey. Well, what happens when the 4th
Division tries to storm this province? Unlike one neighborhood in Homs, the
vast province isn't so easily surrounded. Nevertheless, the last time a
major assault was waged in Idlib, 10,000 Syrians fled to Turkey, where they now
remain, living in tents. The Turks likely won't sit back and accept tens of
thousands of more -- they may be forced to make good on their much-promised "buffer
zone" out of necessity if not desire.
As ever, the
one setting the schedule for this revolution is none other than Bashar
al-Assad. The siege of Homs may be over, but the war for Syria has just begun.