Hundreds of beleaguered Syrian rebels began withdrawing from the city dubbed “the capital of the revolution” on Wednesday, handing a victory to President Bashar Assad three years into a war that has left well over 100,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.
According to activists, nearly 2,000 rebels and their families would be evacuated from the heart of Homs, where anti-Assad forces holed up under fierce bombardment for more than a year. The mainly Sunni fighters had held out in the Old City of Homs and districts close-by despite being out-gunned and under-supplied.
Most of those boarding buses, some with the word “police” on the side and surrounded by men in government flak jackets, were men of fighting age, according to Reuters.
"We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response," a rebel fighter going by the name Abu al-Homsi told The Associated Press. "We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege."
Every rebel was allowed to take a rifle and a bag of belongings, he added.
And unlike a civilian evacuation in February, those fleeing were allowed to keep their light weapons and would not be held for questioning and checks by security forces, activists said. Indeed, the deal brokered by the United Nations allowed for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a machine gun per bus as well, al-Homsi said.
"The opposition has no significant support and is not capable of confronting well-trained foreign fighters. No one believes the opposition can sustain long term against the military."
Fighters were expected to leave the city where protests first sparked in 2011, their departures synchronized with aid delivery and release of captives held by the rebels near two northern Shiite towns, Nubl and Zahraa, and the town of Kassab in Latakia province.
According to the deal, rebels would be taken close by to the rebel-held towns a short distance away in Homs province.
Rebels were maintaining a toe-hold in Homs, however, with fighters in a district just outside the Old City refusing to join the evacuation, according to the AP.
The deal came after months of gains by Assad, who is backed by the Lebanese militant group and political party Hezbollah. It strengthened the government's hold on tracts of territory in the center of the country, while linking the capital Damascus with strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. It will also allow the government to stage attacks on rebels to the north.
According to Imad Salamey, professor of political science at Lebanese American University in Beirut, the rebel retreat from Homs showed just how disadvantaged they were in relation to Assad, who is "armed to the teeth" with Russian weapons.
"The opposition has no significant support and is not capable of confronting well-trained foreign fighters. No one believes the opposition can sustain long-term against the military," he said.
Salamey cautioned against thinking that this would spell an all-out victory for Assad, however.
"A military victory by the government doesn't mean a political solution," he said, adding: "The people in the opposition are seriously larger."
The retreat will boost Assad's legitimacy and hold on power as he heads into presidential elections scheduled for June 3.
Syria’s civil war has reverberated throughout the region, as swathes of territory remain outside government control. More than 100,000 people, including civilians, are thought to have died, 6 million more have been displaced and another 2.5 million were forced to flee the country during the conflict.
— Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.