Inside Syria's Revolution Outmatched Rebels Gain Ground Amid Crackdown


Part 2: Defiant and Apocalyptic

The fact that the fighting around Damascus is so readily apparent is dangerous for the Assad regime, because it exposes the ridiculousness of the propaganda construct that there is a foreign conspiracy. In September, the propaganda station Dunya TV reported that the Al-Jazeera news channel had "built giant film sets of Syrian cities with the help of French and American directors," so as to stage a fictitious rebellion in Syria. But now the reality of the uprising is both audible and visible in the capital.

But the decisive battles, which have already become part of a civil war, are taking place in central Syria: in Hama, where the regime even ordered the bakeries closed and is trying to starve the sealed-off city; in towns like Rastan and Hula, which are being bombarded by regime tanks because no one dares send troops into the city centers any longer; and in Homs, the center of the rebellion, where more than 2,000 people have died.

Since November, a few hundred FSA fighters have retained control of the Bab Amr neighborhood in southwestern Homs. The houses on the front lines, long abandoned and half-destroyed, are connected for several hundred meters by openings in the walls. This enables the men to reach their positions without venturing into the streets. They have laid mines in some places to prevent the government troops from advancing -- mines that they purchased from the soldiers.

The prevailing mood there is both defiant and apocalyptic. "Come to us. You'll find the safest hospital in all of Homs here," one of the doctors in the underground hospital and Suleiman al-Hamad, an emergency rescue worker and body-washer, joked in December. "Here is where you will be treated!" they said, pointing sarcastically at the improvised interior of the converted shed. "At the government hospital you'll enter with a leg injury and leave with a bullet in your head." There have been reports of the wounded being dragged away and killed before they were even admitted to the government hospitals. Doctors, pharmacists and nurses have been murdered, and the only reason Suleiman's real name can be used here is that he was shot to death days after the visit to his makeshift hospital while attempting to recover one of the wounded.

In late January, there were already three such underground clinics in Bab Amr alone. One is exclusively for the severely wounded. A policeman is paid $4 a day to stand outside the gate and prevent anyone from parking at the entrance. "We can now operate effectively on gunshot wounds to the legs and arms," says a doctor, describing the situation. "For shots to the lungs, we have taken plastic tubes from toilets and sterilized them, and we have set fractures with wood. But they have been shooting at people's heads for the last two months, and we can't do anything about that. We just have to watch these people die."

Homs at the Forefront

Doctors are putting their lives at risk by filching materials from government hospitals. Other supplies, including devices for sterilizing bandages and blood-testing equipment, are smuggled across the snow-covered borders on mules and motorcycles or in backpacks.

In the midst of the bustling volunteers, who are removing blood-soaked sheets and trying to get the sterilizer working again, an eerie debate has erupted over what might have happened to the eyes of corpses being found in the streets at daylight. Some say that the corneas are being sold for transplants, while others insist that the torturers are simply poking out the eyes of their victims.

In Homs, many things happen sooner than elsewhere in the country. Early on, the shifting power structure reflected the regime's cluelessness over how to quell the continuing mass protests. First the "Political Security Service" was responsible for Homs, followed by "Military Security," until autumn when the Air Force intelligence service, known for its brutality, assumed responsibility for the city. The actual army leadership plays a secondary role, while the heads of the intelligence services are truly in command.

Bab Amr, and increasingly other Sunni neighborhoods in Homs, has become a model for other cities. In Bab Amr, the revolutionary city council has had green food cards printed. Each card consists of a number of small boxes, which are stamped weekly. In return, residents receive sacks of rice, baby food, sugar and oil, enough food for a family to survive for a week. The district has its own police force and even a tiny prison, where people caught looting abandoned houses are kept. Evacuation plans have been made in case of large-scale aerial bombardment, and basements have been stocked with supplies. "Our informants in the military have reported that the 4th Division is having Scud missiles brought from Damascus to the outskirts of Homs," explains Omar Shakir, the spokesman for the town council. Of course, this isn't his real name.

Reconnaissance planes can be heard in the sky over Homs, and a battalion of the 4th Division has taken up position outside the city. "Assad is still waiting to see if the United Nations Security Council adopts a resolution," says Shakir. But after that, he adds, anything is possible. Shakir, who is a business manager in civilian life, sometimes wonders what the regime actually hopes to achieve. "Assad can't even survive this," because he has irrevocably lost control over the clans throughout the country, he says. "So what is the objective? Does he even have one?"

International Community Holding Back

Shakir is less concerned now about the demise of Assad's regime than what happens after that. "Many people here want revenge!" he says. In the religiously diverse city of Homs, home to both the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority, to which the Assad family belongs, retribution killings are becoming increasingly common. "We are supposed to hold people back here?" Shakir asks. "Homs will turn into a civil-war zone unless someone stops the regime."

But this seems unlikely to happen, given the situation abroad. No country wants or dares to intervene militarily. Russia, which has its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus and sells weapons worth billions of euros to Syria, doesn't want to lose its last remaining ally in the region.

For Iran, the fall of the Assad regime would represent the loss of not one but two allies, because the country uses Syria as a supply route for Hezbollah, the strongest political and military force in Lebanon and Israel's enemy to the north.

In Iraq, where the majority Shiites gained control after the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein, many fear a dominant Sunni majority in Syria and a rebellion by fellow Sunnis in Iraq's western provinces.

And even in Turkey, which withdrew its support for the Assad regime early on, a more reticent mood prevails once again. Drastic threats by the foreign minister in July were followed the imposition of tougher sanctions in November, after the Kurdish separatist organization PKK, which is supported by the Syrian regime, had killed dozens of soldiers in southeastern Turkey in the heaviest offensive in years. Ankara has kept a low profile since then.

"It looks like we will have to keep on fighting alone, but we will not give up," says Omar Shakir in Homs. And then, lowering his voice, he adds: "Of course, it would be nicer if we survived."

By SPIEGEL Staff. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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