BEIRUT, Lebanon — After a bruising, 27-day siege under intensifying bombardment, rebels holed up in the shattered Baba Amr neighborhood of the central Syrian city of Homs announced a “tactical withdrawal” on Thursday, apparently handing victory to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad but raising concerns about the plight of civilians there.
A campaign of raids and arrests began almost immediately in the area, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, which said 17 people had died in Baba Amr on Thursday.
Later on Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that Syrian authorities had granted it a “green light” to enter the battered neighborhood and bring “much-needed assistance including food and medical aid and to carry out evacuation operations.”
Baba Amr had become an emblem of resistance with fighters maintaining their defiance despite daily reports of a pounding by artillery, sniper and tank fire as government forces encircled them. The announcement of a rebel pullout, a day after government forces seemed to crank up military pressure on the neighborhood, came as Western and Arab nations pressed to deepen the diplomatic isolation of the Damascus authorities.
A statement from the fighters within the neighborhood, the “Revolutionary Brigades of Baba Amr,” said they were making a tactical retreat because of the “drastic humanitarian situation for the residents” who are lacking food, medicine, water, electricity and any means of communication.
The government shelling, which began on Feb. 4, had practically leveled Baba Amr, the statement said, and the government forces enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in firepower from helicopters to tanks to mortars.
With about 4,000 residents left, the statement held the government soldiers responsible for the safety of those left and called for international humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross to be allowed to deploy in the quarter.
There are widespread concerns that the army units might exact revenge on the residents for holding out for a month — not least because the Syrian government has a history of murdering the residents of rebellious neighborhoods as it did in nearby Hama in 1982.
“We warn the regime against any acts of revenge that would target civilians,” the rebel statement said on Thursday. “They are responsible for the security and the safety of the people living there.”
Despite its overwhelming strength in arms, the Syrian military has been hard-pressed to deploy all the units it needs to put down the fires of the uprising that have erupted across the country. Instead they have had to address rebellious cities one at a time. Once Homs is considered under control, the military is expected to address the uprising in Hama and particularly Idlib, where villages spread over a wide area have declared themselves free of the government.
But, analysts said, the nagging question for the authorities is whether they will be able to hold on to cities captured at such a high cost once the military moves on. The fighting is also drawing increasingly strident condemnation from the West and some Arab countries.
In Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to condemn Mr. Assad’s government for widespread violations of human rights in the almost year-old crackdown on its opponents and to demand an end to violence that has become the bloodiest of the so-called Arab Spring.
The nonbinding measure, calling on the Syrian authorities to permit humanitarian access to opposition enclaves, was approved by 37 nations including the United States at a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, with China, Cuba and Russia voting against it. Ecuador, India and the Philippines abstained, and four members of the 47-nation council did not participate.
Russia and China had earlier blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution supported by Western governments and the Arab League calling on Mr. Assad to yield power. The ballot in Geneva deepened a sharp international divide over the crisis and came as Syria’s diplomatic isolation seemed to grow with Britain and Switzerland saying they were closing their embassies in Damascus, the capital, following a similar move by the United States last month.
The Parliament in Kuwait, which has limited powers, pledged to support rebels opposed to Mr. Assad’s rule and urged Kuwait’s government to sever ties with the authorities in Damascus.
For their part, exiles claiming to represent rebels opposed to Mr. Assad seemed to be hoping to secure arms supplies from outside Syria to bolster their resistance.
Syria’s main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council, announced in a statement that it had formed a “military bureau” to try to unify armed resistance to Mr. Assad.
Burhan Ghalioun, the council’s head, told reporters in Paris that the bureau, to be staffed by military and civilian personnel, would help channel arms supplies from outside countries to rebels fighting on the ground inside Syria, news reports said.
Mr. Ghalioun did not say who might supply the arms, but both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called recently for the opposition to be armed. Syria has criticized the call.
The military bureau would try to coordinate the actions of disparate armed groups opposed to the Syrian regime, placing them under a central command, according to the council’s statement, and under the “political supervision” of the council itself. As the siege of Baba Amr unfolded, the divergent perceptions of the United States and its allies on one side and China, Cuba, Iran and Russia on the other have become ever sharper, blunting efforts to reach agreement on how the guns might be silenced to at least permit humanitarian help for civilians trapped in embattled enclaves.
After the vote in Geneva, the American envoy, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, told Reuters television: “I think that the vote speaks for itself. There is an overwhelming international consensus on the human rights situation in Syria and the humanitarian crisis that has been created by the Assad regime.”
“I think the isolation of China, Russia and Cuba is sad, but it was expected,” she said. “The meaning of this vote is almost as important for those three countries as it is for the Assad regime. They are on the wrong side of history.”
The resolution tallied a long list of charges against Mr. Assad’s government and “strongly” condemned “the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities, like the use of force against civilians, arbitrary executions, the killing and persecution of protesters, human rights defenders and journalists, including recent deaths of Syrian and foreign journalists, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, interference with access to medical treatment, torture, sexual violence and ill-treatment, including against children.”
The resolution also urged the authorities in Damascus to “immediately put an end to all human rights violations and attacks against civilians, to cease all violence, to allow free and unimpeded access by the United Nations humanitarian agencies to carry out a full assessment of needs in Homs and other areas and to permit humanitarian agencies to deliver vital relief goods and services to all civilians affected by the violence” in Homs and other places.
In the latest sign of international alarm about the situation in Syria, the Swiss government said on Thursday that “for reasons of security, Switzerland temporarily closed its embassy in Damascus as of 29 February 2012.” The Swiss ambassador had already been recalled for consultations last August while, since November, 2011, the Swiss authorities had been urging their citizens to leave the country immediately, the Swiss Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The United States closed its embassy in Damascus last month, and many Western and Arab missions scaled back their presence.
In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain was suspending its diplomatic operations in Damascus because “the deterioration of the security situation in Damascus puts our embassy staff and premises at risk.” The British had already reduced staff in Damascus to fewer than 10 people.
Communication with those in Baba Amr, the epicenter of the government bombardment, was severed for several hours on Wednesday, and there were conflicting reports throughout the day over whether the long-expected assault on the area had already begun. But a few activists in the city reported that there had been no invasion.
Fear of a final assault had been reinforced by the sudden disappearance of checkpoints around the city. Tank reinforcements had rumbled into the area around Baba Amr overnight from the Damascus highway, activists said.
Snipers deployed on buildings were picking off anyone who moved along the streets, he said, so it was impossible to assess how many people were left. Moving into and out of the neighborhood meant courting death, he added. “The humanitarian situation is really bad,” Mr. Jundi said, referring to the entire city. Many neighborhoods have lost their electricity completely in recent days. Activists in Baba Amr say they have been using badly needed fuel to refrigerate the bodies of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, two Western journalists killed there last week.
Two other journalists, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, both from France, were also reported trapped in Baba Amr and their whereabouts was not immediately known on Thursday.
The New York Times
The New York Times