The rebels may have retreated, but the revolution goes on.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
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?
Changes are 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.
Whatever the 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 Revolutionary Council" to steal Asaad’s thunder.
No matter 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."
This implies 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.
Like many 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 representative.
The 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 Brotherhood fiat.
All this 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 families.
As Homs 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.