The civil war in Syria has been characterized as a stalemate for some time now; a grinding war of attrition. But on Wednesday the balance shifted in one key battleground.
The rebels effectively surrendered control of the key city of Homs, once known as the "Capital of the Revolution."
“This is the end of quite a long process of negotiation,” says reporter Martin Chulov. Chulov is covering the story for Britain's Guardian newspaper. He's currently in Beirut.
The rebels had been besieged and blockaded by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad for more than two years. They had also been subjected to constant bombardment. “They have been battered by aircraft and artillery.”
But the key weapon was food. Chulov says in effect “they have been starved into submission.”
Despite vowing to fight to the bitter end, Chulov says that eventually the rebels accepted the military reality. “There wasn’t anything they could achieve by continuing to hold out. ... So they decided to cut their losses.”
Defeat with Dignity
But this was no unconditional surrender. Rebels are evacuating as part of a complex deal with the government. The rebels and their families are being allowed to leave for another rebel-held area nearby, and are being accompanied by UN staff.
What’s more they are being allowed to retain their personal weapons, and one rocket-propelled grenade per bus.
“It’s tokenism, really,” says Chulov. “One weapon is not going to change the reality on the battlefield.” But he adds “it’s partly about dignity, which allows a fighting man to withdraw with his weapon.” It was an effective way to secure the deal.
In other parts of the deal, rebels are ending their blockade of some pro-government villages in the district, while the rebels are also releasing some prisoners.
Rebels retain control of one neighborhood of Homs, but a ceasefire/evacuation deal is also being negotiated there and is expected to take effect soon.
Regime now controls the heart of the country
“The ramifications of this are significant,” says Chulov. Once the last rebels have gone from Homs, he points out that the government will control a contiguous strip of territory “all the way from Damascus in the south to Tartus on the north-western coast.” He adds “this is the heartland of the country, and is the part of Syria that the regime wants the most.”
Chulov also says it reflects the fact that “perhaps in some quarters of the country, the will to fight (among the rebels) is diminishing.”
But Chulov cautions that the war is a long way from breaking out of the stalemate that has characterized it for so long. “I think it’s fair to say that the regime does control the strategic heart of Syria now, and it’s very difficult to see how it could lose that again. But if you look to the north, the east, the south, it’s a very different picture.”
“So I think the gains the regime has made give it pretty good leverage at the negotiating table, but I’m not sure they’re going to be followed by sweeping military victories elsewhere.”