BEIRUT – Once hailed as the heroes of Syria’s revolution, Homs’ besieged, starved and abandoned rebels are now defending a shattered enclave, fearing their uprising will die if they are defeated.
Homs was dubbed “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar Assad after the uprising began three years ago, when it was the scene of peaceful mass rallies and sit-ins that defined the early months of the revolt.
But the regime struck back with a brutal crackdown, jailing thousands, opening fire on demonstrators and eventually shoving the country into a full-scale war, with troops shelling rebel neighborhoods for weeks or months at a time.
Small pockets of rebels have managed to hang on in Homs, but with regime forces tightening a 20-month siege and advancing elsewhere in the country, they fear they could be driven out of the strategic central city.
“What we fear is the regime taking control of what remains of the besieged areas,” said Thaer, a 25-year-old activist and former jeweller from the Khaldiyeh neighborhood — a former bastion of the revolt now under army control.
“If that happens, the revolution will end, and we will have to forget about our families returning to our neighborhoods,” he said. “The regime will be able, without much difficulty, to take control of the rest of Syria.”
The districts around the demolished Old City, where rebels are making what could be their last stand, are scenes of utter devastation — with streets flooded with rubble coursing past hollowed-out apartment blocs.
But the rebels still view the city as the symbolic heart of the revolution, and are determined not to let the regime reap a propaganda victory.
“The revolutionaries are not defending rubble, they are defending what Homs represents,” says Abul Hareth, a local cleric.
Until a weeklong, U.N.-supervised humanitarian operation in February that saw some 1,400 people evacuated and the distribution of some aid, no food or medicine had entered since June 2012, forcing residents to survive on little more than herbs.
Some 1,500 people still trapped inside face the choice of abandoning their neighborhoods or resisting to the death. Thaer says the besieged include 100 wounded people “with no medicine.”
The rebels also face tough choices, after seeing the unity of the early months of the uprising disintegrate, with some factions taking orders from different foreign patrons and armed gangs exploiting the chaos.
“If I stay on the front line, I am also maintaining those who have turned the revolution into a business,” said Diaa Abu Jihad, a 24-year-old electrician-turned-fighter.
“But if I abandon it, I betray the friends who gave their lives to stop the army from taking the whole of Homs.”
More than 140,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war began.
Activists reminisce about the start of the revolt in 2011 as a time of spontaneous, peaceful action, as young people inspired by the Arab Spring took to the streets to demand the end of the Assad family’s 40-year rule.
And they remember when a regime onslaught in February 2012 against the Baba Amr neighborhood killed hundreds of people, hastening the militarization of the uprising.
“A real revolutionary runs away from the house, goes to fight the enemy, and comes back at the end of the night. He sees his mother, eats something and runs away again before the crack of dawn,” Yazan, a 29-year-old activist, said via the Internet. “What happened here was the opposite,” as residential neighborhoods were transformed into war zones.
As the rebels took up arms out of desperation, more sinister elements did as well. “People who were known to be thugs could suddenly claim to be battalion leaders,” said Yazan, who was studying for a master’s degree in international finance before the war.
The fighting forced tens of thousands of families to flee Homs, joining the world’s largest tide of displaced people in two decades. The conflict has created 2.5 million refugees and internally displaced another 6.5 million.
Activist Abu Fahmi, who volunteers in a barren field hospital, said there has been talk of a truce, similar to those reached in a string of districts around Damascus in recent weeks, but without “any concrete result.”
Yazan says he expected the regime’s brutality, but was disappointed that no one came to his city’s aid. “We used to think people wouldn’t just leave us to die here.”