With all communications to Bab Amr severed, including satellite connections, it was difficult to ascertain exactly what was happening. But though the rebel Free Syrian Army cast the pullout as a tactical withdrawal, all the available evidence pointed to a rout of the fighters, who had seized control of the neighborhood months ago and turned it into a nationwide symbol of the burgeoning armed rebellion against the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
The speed with which Syrian forces seized control of the neighborhood — less than 36 hours — after a 27-day siege during which the area was subjected to almost-uninterrupted artillery bombardment, focused attention on the increasingly controversial question of whether outside powers should arm the Syrian opposition.
Col. Malik al-Kurdi, a Free Syrian Army spokesman reached by telephone in Turkey, appealed for weapons, saying that only the force of arms could bring down the Assad regime and protect the civilians who have been demonstrating for nearly a year to end four decades of Assad family rule. “Our light and limited weapons cannot confront the tanks and rockets of the regime,” Kurdi said.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in recent days declared support for arming the Free Syrian Army. But the United States remains opposed, amid concerns about the nature of the deeply divided Syrian opposition and the risk of a regionwide conflagration should a full-scale civil war erupt.
The retreat from Bab Amr also called into question the capacity of the disorganized rebel movement to confront one of the region’s most powerful armies, even if weapons do begin to flow. The fighters are equipped only with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades seized from the regular army or smuggled across Syria’s borders.
“The Free Syrian Army don’t have heavy weapons, and without them I’m not sure they can survive,” said Mulham Jundi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who is in hiding in Homs.
A statement issued by the Free Syrian Army said its fighters had withdrawn out of consideration for the welfare of the 4,000 civilians trapped in the neighborhood, and because they lacked sufficient weaponry to withstand a stepped-up ground offensive by the better-armed government troops.
In a statement posted on a Facebook page run by Bab Amr activists, the rebels cited dire conditions in the area and called on the Red Cross to be allowed to deliver humanitarian aid.