Scorched Earth

Baba Amr’s Last Stand: The Final Days of the Syrian Rebel Stronghold

In just two days, some 2,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border to Lebanon, fleeing a monthlong assault on Homs. One of the last to leave the embattled neighborhood of Baba Amr tells of the rebel stronghold’s final days—and what became of the fighters who left it behind.

The man in his late 20s who goes by the name Omar al-Homsi was one of the first members of the Farouq Brigade, a rebel force he helped found in Baba Amr in October. On Wednesday he joined the brigade’s 2,000 to 5,000 men (he won’t give more specific numbers) in finally leaving the madness behind, shedding his fatigues for jeans and a sweater, his uniform as a “civilian” in Lebanon. It is a transformation he made regularly throughout the past five months, smuggling himself over the border to take care of the computer-based side of operations, then heading back inside to command his team of 25 fighters in Baba Amr. Contrary to the motley image of most rebels, he is a model of discipline. He neither smokes nor drinks coffee, standard fare for nearly all Syrian activists, and talks smoothly about how to catch the various viruses State Security Branch 225 has used to try to hack into his Skype accounts.

Although he would not reveal his rank within the Farouq leadership, he is the most senior commander present during Baba Amr’s last stand to arrive in Lebanon and talk with journalists about the decision to withdraw since the retreat.

About a week before the end of the shelling, he said, he received information from his sources inside the Army that new orders had come down: “Finish it,” al-Homsi recalled them saying. “Don’t worry about the press, just finish what’s happening in Baba Amr, even if it requires destroying everything.” The bombardment had already been ongoing for about 20 days at that point, haphazardly pounding Baba Amr with Grad multiple-rocket launchers, Malotka wire-guided missiles, heavy mortars, and a slew of other antiaircraft and antitank shells. Still, he said, those firing the rockets exercised some degree of restraint, easing up when they knew there were livestreams beaming images out online and on satellite-TV channels. But after the some 7,000 ground troops stationed around the neighborhood had tried and failed to enter four times, government commanders had had enough.

As ordered, the assault intensified. “We knew they were serious as soon as they started bombing,” he said. “The rockets became crazy. They fell everywhere, on people, on houses, on everything. Sometimes in those last days, we’d see three or four rockets per minute, and could hear them coming in, pfft, pfft, pfft, pfft. We knew we couldn’t defend against that.” A group of top officers gathered inside Baba Amr to make a final call. It was a local decision made exclusively by commanders on the ground, reached by discussion, not by vote, he said. Although the neighborhood technically was under the control of the Farouq Brigade, the reality of the leadership composition was actually more mixed. Fighters from the Khaled bin Walid Brigade were present, too, though they are generally associated with the Khaldiyeh neighborhood across town. “They were there fighting with us, and they were there deciding with us,” he said.

Once they agreed to withdraw, they divided their ranks into two groups: one to evacuate as many people as possible to the west, the other to create diversions for government forces to the east. In the siege’s final five days, they pulled out using chains of secret roads and tunnels in a village-to-village underground railroad to the Lebanese border, details of which fighters and medics have shared on the condition that they not be published. “We would drop the wounded off at the borders, then go back and get more. This is how we spent our last days,” he said. “We dealt with Edith [Bouvier, the French journalist injured in the shelling] just like we would deal with one of our own.” The routes were dark, cold, and filthy and required crawling for long stretches, usually while needing to carry the gravely wounded.

By Wednesday, after government forces had located and attacked one of the main routes out, the officers finally decided to call it quits. They published a statement online announcing their withdrawal, then gave the orders to abandon the neighborhood. Homsi departed then, leaving about 75 to 100 men behind him to keep the regime at bay until the very last minute. “I felt I was looking at Lebanon in 2006. There wasn’t a single building that hadn’t been hit,” he said. About 1,000 civilians and 500 fighters were evacuated in those five days, he estimated. “We took out as many civilians as we could. I don’t know how many had to be left. I remember there was still one wounded guy, who’d lost a leg, in a field hospital where they were working on a kitchen table. There were maybe a few hundred still there.”

He left with 10 other rebels and five of the wounded; once they reached their first stop in a village outside Baba Amr, some went back and others continued on their way out of the country. He heard Friday that the ones who’d gone back had made it out alive.

By the next day, government forces were inside Baba Amr. The day after that, Friday, state TV was there, broadcasting interviews with residents who thanked the army for rescuing them from the “terrorists.” The opposition Local Coordination Committees, at the same time, were reporting that security forces were rounding up and executing young men in nearby fields. Throughout it all, the Red Cross vehicles that had received the green light to enter Friday morning were stuck waiting just outside the neighborhood, refused entry by security forces. As of Sunday, though they had begun distributing food and blankets to displaced residents near Baba Amr, but they still could not enter.

Like al-Homsi, the Farouq fighters of Baba Amr have scattered to different locations around Homs, some to different neighborhoods, others to the villages, and a few across the border. He does not expect them to retake their lost territory. “Baba Amr was just a symbol. Yes, it was a center of the Free Syrian Army, but more than that, it was an idea. We wanted it to be so the first thing you’d think if you’d decided to defect was, ‘I have to join Baba Amr,’” he said. In some ways, despite the devastating toll, they succeeded. The city’s defiance emboldened a wave of others inside the military to reach out, developing an extensive Skype-based network of real-time intelligence updates.

“We’re more organized than people think, even than the officers in Turkey think. It’s not like the political side, without unity. Each battalion has educated people who understand how dangerous this could become if it’s not controlled. We don’t want weapons all over the country after this is over,” he said. Even the tightest control does not necessarily guard against abuses, however. Asked about prisoners, he confirmed that when forced to choose between abandoning or executing detainees who could reveal valuable information about the Free Syrian Army, the Farouq policy is to kill them.

For now, scattered about in other Farouq strongholds throughout the greater Homs area, he and his men are lying low. He said he has yet to see any evidence of material support from either Gulf or Western countries, despite coy hints to the media from places like Qatar, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. “It’s all just words from them so far. And the Americans are afraid of us,” he said. Instead, self-reliance is the plan. Reports of black-market weapons smuggling from Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq are exaggerated, he said; most of the weapons come from inside the Syrian military itself, via their networks. They are waiting only for communications to come back to Homs, at which point they will regroup and decide, in those closed chatrooms, which site will become the next Baba Amr.