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Syrian Rebels Cede Stronghold After Over A Year Under Siege


There's a development today in Syria's civil war. Syrian rebels surrendered control of an important piece of ground, the city of Homs. That's been the heart of uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of rebel fighters abandoned the city's central district. They left in rickety green buses, escorted by the United Nations. The rebels had been under siege and were running out of ammunition and food.

For more on the story, we're joined by NPR's Alice Fordham. She's in Beirut.

And, Alice, does this mean that every rebel fighter has now left Homs now? And have Assad's forces moved in?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, not quite, Melissa. Every step of this has been slow and torturous and this last phase is no exception. So we've seen the footage today of cattle trucks full of fighters coming out. But reports suggest there's between one and 2,000 fighters in there, maybe a few more than 100 civilians. Plus, because of mines and unexploded ordnance he will, it'll take a long time for soldiers to fully retake the area.

BLOCK: And yet this is a significant moment for rebels to give up Homs, which is the cradle of the revolution in Syria. That's a big deal.

FORDHAM: Absolutely. For Syrians who've been involved in the uprising from the beginning, Homs was hugely important. It was where we saw enormous rallies full of singing people in the streets. I remember those first shaky videos of the group that came to be known as the Free Syrian Army parading a captured tank through the streets, painted with the liberation flag's colors. So this is a deal, a negotiated agreement, but it's still a surrender.

BLOCK: And what was the deal actually? What was the arrangement that led to this withdrawal?

FORDHAM: The rebels that we've spoken to say that the deal is that they have agreed to leave the old city, and another area called al-Waer which actually still under negotiation. They're going to keep light weapons and they're going to be allowed to go to opposition-held areas. In exchange, they will allow aids to two pro-regime villages that they've besieged. And they'll release prisoners being held in Aleppo in the north.

BLOCK: And is there any sense among the civilians, those who've managed to remain in Homs, who haven't fled, how they feel about this?

FORDHAM: Well, I think not all of them are happy. There are a lot of people in Homs who are pro-Assad. And for many of those people, they feel that the rebels are being let off too easily. A huge car bombing by Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an extremist rebel group, about a week ago killed more than a hundred civilians. And many of the militias that are fighting with Assad alongside the army, wanted to keep fighting. From what we're hearing, they didn't want to let these guys go.

BLOCK: When Assad's forced du have complete control of the city of Homs, what strategically does that mean for his regime?

FORDHAM: Well, the city of Homs is Syria's third largest city. So it is a significant piece of territory. It's also, Syria's three main cities, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, are all in the west of the country and they're joined by one major highway. So, really to hold Syria you have to hold that highway, and you have to hold those three major cities. At various stages, Assad has lost control of parts of that highway, lost control of parts of Homs, and still doesn't have complete control of Eastern Aleppo mostly.

BLOCK: So, Alice, after this rebel surrender of Homs, what's next in Syria?

FORDHAM: Well, in the short-term, we have a presidential election which will be held on June 3rd. It's been widely referred to as a piece of political theatre, because it will allow Assad to have big public rallies in places like Homs and maybe areas round Damascus that he's recently retaken, and celebrate his victory which is assured. In the longer term, the fighters say that they want to keep fighting, that this is not over. This coincides with an up tick American support to some of the rebels.

But barring a really significant change in the international backers, who are behind some of the rebel groups, I can't see them retaking significant areas of territory, like the old city of Homs any time soon.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Alice Fordham reporting from Beirut. Alice, thanks very much.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.