War-weariness key to ending fight over Homs

Government forces hang the national flag on top of a pole in the old city of Homs, Syria

Who is winning in Syria? It is a simple question with no simple answer.

You may think it is President Bashar al-Assad, with the rebels abandoning Homs. But further north, in Idlib and in Aleppo, government forces are under pressure.

The confusion arises because Syria is not one battlefield but several.

The rebels seem incapable of acting as anything other than a series of local or, at best, regional militias.

That was the anguished complaint of the rebels in Homs - no-one else came to help them break the siege; no-one came to their rescue.

In Homs, the rebels were beaten by the Syrian army's "surrender or starve" tactics. Fighters lost a third or even half of their body weight, they told us, as they hung on for two years.

They had no weapons to break the siege. The al-Nusra Front made a last attempt to break out with a series of suicide bombings against government checkpoints. They failed, and the jihadists joined the buses out with the rest of the fighters.

A military vehicle that belongs to the Free Syrian Army is seen in Al-Amariya district in Aleppo, 8 May 2014 Both sides have been trying to end a long-standing stalemate in the northern city of Aleppo

Further north, the rebels are, somehow, getting US-made anti-tank weapons. That has had a hand in their recent successes. It might account for the government's apparent, desperate use of chlorine bombs.

So the weaponry available to the rebels in different parts of Syria explains much of what is happening on the battlefield.

But morale is important too - it may decide how the armed uprising ends.

'Betrayed'

Leaving Homs, the rebels displayed bravado. "This is victory for the rebels," said one, implausibly. "We thank God for this. We are leaving with dignity but we will be back and, God willing, we will liberate Homs."

But you would expect people to say this kind of thing for the cameras.

A deserted square in Homs, Syria Rebels are abandoning their last stronghold in the heart of Homs after a two-year siege

The rebels set fire to buildings as they left - a plume of smoke hanging over the Old City - perhaps showing their real belief about whether they would return.

And in Skype conversations with those inside, people were bleak, disillusioned, angry and bitter. "We were betrayed by the outside world," said one activist close to the fighters.

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Some rebels are deciding that three years of blood and sacrifice with little to show for it is enough”

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Above all, people seemed tired. That is not surprising after being cut-off for two years. But it is a feeling you hear expressed more and more often.

Some rebels are deciding that three years of blood and sacrifice with little to show for it is enough.

It is why, for instance, the government has been able to agree dozens of local ceasefires with the rebels, especially in the suburbs of Damascus.

'Weeping and hugging'

One such truce was in Yalda, in the south of the capital, in February.

The deal, as elsewhere, was for the rebels to give up their heavy weapons and fly the government flag. In return, they would keep their Kalashnikovs and, above all, food supplies would be allowed to cross the former front line.

A well-informed source told me about the negotiations to agree all this. Rebel commanders from Yalda arrived at the presidential palace to negotiate with an army general. They were hungry, gaunt, exhausted, yet bristling with hostility.

A Syrian rebel chats with an army officer after a local ceasefire is agreed in Babila, south-eastern Damascus (17 February 2014) Dozens of local ceasefires have been agreed between rebel and government forces

First they were fed - and that improved the mood immediately. Then, negotiations that both sides had expected to conclude in days, if at all, were all over in two hours with everything agreed.

The government side accepted that it was not welcome in the rebel-held areas. The army would not try to enter. The rebels had abandoned their goal of dislodging President Assad; that was not even mentioned.

According to my source, both sides looked at each other, and realised how much they had lost. They wept and hugged. There was relief that it was over.

Many rebels still want to fight, of course, and overall a military stalemate persists.

But such hope as there is to end this conflict with a negotiated settlement lies in the war-weariness on display in the Yalda negotiations.

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