Several journalists are held in the sealed-off Baba Amr area. According to Atlanticist leaders, they are prevented from leaving by the constant pounding of the rebel stronghold by the Syrian Army. As an on-the-spot privileged witness of the negotiations, Thierry Meyssan gives an account of the situation: the journalists are kept as prisoners by the Free “Syrian” Army which uses them as human shields. Their evacuation by the Syrian Red Crescent has been obstructed by the rebels.
Our colleagues Marie Colvin (Sunday Times) and Remi Ochlik (IP3 Press) were killed on Wednesday, 22 February 2012, in the rebel-held area inside Homs.
According to Western news agencies quoting the Free “Syrian” Army, they were victims of the shelling inflicted by the Damascus forces on the area. However, the National Army made use of multiple rocket launchers only for a very brief period to destroy firing positions, and at no time after 13 February. Furthermore, if it were true that the city had been pounded for 21 straight days, as reported by the news agencies, it would long ago have been reduced to a heap of rubble without a living soul.
At least three other journalists still remain in the rebel zone: Edith Bouvier (Le Figaro Magazine), Paul Conroy and William Daniels (Sunday Times), and probably a fourth one of Spanish nationality.
In a video posted on the Internet, Edith Bouvier, who was wounded in the leg, and William Daniels called for a cease-fire and for their evacuation to a hospital in Lebanon. Immediately, an intensive communication campaign was mounted for them, including the creation of several Facebook groups and thundering declarations by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé.
There is no GSM or G3 coverage left in Homs, and the telephone wire lines in the rebel zone have been cut.
It won’t escape anyone’s notice that if the journalists were able to upload a video to call for help, it is because they had access to a satellite connection. And if it hasn’t been possible for them to contact their families, their employers or embassies, it is because those who control that satellite connection have denied it to them. They are, therefore, not free in their movements and are kept as prisoners.
The military situation
The Syrian generals deemed that the Battle of Homs was won on 13 February and reported to President Bashar al-Assad that it was over on Thursday, 23 February, at 1900 hours.
Victory does not have the same meaning for civilians as for the military. The former dream of a return to a peaceful life. The latter proclaim it much in the same way as a surgeon at the end of a successful operation. The fact remains that the injured are still subjected to months of treatment and years of rehabilitation. Specifically, what the end of the battle means to them is that the rebels have been confined inside a completely encircled area and no longer pose a threat to their security.
The main arteries of the city were reopened to traffic, but they are strewn with speed bumps for miles on end. Cars must zigzag their way along. The city has been emptied of the vast majority of its inhabitants and is nothing more than a ghost town.
The Battle of Homs unfolded in three stages:
The first day, Syrian troops were stopped from entering the besieged neighborhoods by the anti-tank missiles fired by the rebels, notably Milan missiles.
Then, the Syrian troops bombarded the missile firing posts, at the cost of significant collateral damage among their fellow citizens, while the rebels regrouped into a single zone which they appropriated.
Finally, the troops surrounded the rebel stronghold, penetrated it and began liberating each street, one by one. To avoid being ambushed from the rear, the Syrian army advanced row by row, which slowed its progression.
The encircled area was once inhabited by 40,000 people. It now shelters an unspecified number of civilians, mostly old men who could not flee in time, and about 2,000 fighters of the Free “Syrian” Army. This label hides several rival groups divided into two main currents: on one hand, the Takfirists who consider not only that democracy is incompatible with Islam, but that the Alawites (including Bashar al-Assad) are heretics and should be barred from any political responsibility in Muslim lands; on the other hand, the felons who were recruited to strengthen the so-called Free “Syrian” Army. No longer paid, these gangs have resumed their independence and do not follow the same logic as the Takfirists. Most foreign fighters left Homs before the bastion was sealed off. They are currently assembled in the northern district of Idlib.
All the rebels in Baba Amr have considerable stocks of arms and ammunition, which in the current situation are no longer replenished, and sooner or later they will have to give themselves up, short a foreign military intervention. Their arsenals contain night vision Dragunov sniper rifles, as well as 80 to 120 mm mortars and incalculable quantities of explosives. They converted basements into warehouses and even set up weapons caches in the sewers. However, contrary to what has been reported, the pipes are too narrow to allow them to circulate. Similarly, the tunnels that were dug in the days when they had the protection of the former Governor of Homs, are no longer ventilated and can no longer be used. As for the ex-governor, he has long been exiled in Qatar, where he quietly enjoys the salary for his treachery.
The population had backed the rebels for a while, but it is now being used as human shields. Civilians who attempt to flee are shot by snipers. They have no way of rebelling, especially since most of them are elderly.
One could suppose that in the medium term, the rift within the Free “Syrian” Army, its lack of popular support, and the drying up of international reinforcements should lead some of the rebels to surrender. However, the Takfirists may decide to fight to the death.
At present, the rebels won’t allow civilians to flee their area and are blowing up the empty houses, at a rate of about a dozen per day. Moreover, rebel commandos located outside the cordoned zone attack the camps of the regular army to disorganize it and loosen the noose. They resort mainly to car bombs, thanks to the reopening of the streets, which explains the need to maintain the speed bumps.
Baba Amr is not being pounded. The only shelling still taking place is rebel mortar fire against the National Army.
The situation of the journalists
The journalists inside the rebel area are grouped into the same apartment, called a “media center,” whose precise location is unknown.
They entered Syria illegally, when they could have applied for a press visa, which all would have obtained, with the exception of Israeli citizens in view of the state of war between the two countries.
Their transportation to Homs was organized by a single smuggling ring, either from northern Lebanon or from southern Turkey. This ring serves as Office of Public Relations for the Free “Syrian” Army. It is responsible for having put the journalists in contact with the persons hosting them, and whose identity is unclear.
On Friday, 24 February, the International Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent began negotiating with the Free “Syrian” Army via the Red Crescent workers inside the cordoned area. They were given permission to enter the premises with ambulances to repatriate the bodies of the two dead journalists, and to evacuate the rest, both injured and sound. However, at the last moment, the journalists refused to leave, fearing a trap set up by the Damascus authorities. Indeed, they had been told by their French colleagues who left the scene earlier that the Syrian government would strive to eliminate them. Moreover, having access only to satellite TV channels controlled by NATO and the GCC, they are convinced that the fighting of which they are the victims is not only limited to their neighborhood, but extends throughout all of Syria.
Ultimately, the Syrian Red Crescent was allowed to evacuate twenty-seven sick and injured civilians who were driven to the Al Amin hospital in Homs (in the liberated part of the city). The London office of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, according to which hospitals have become torture centers, had spread the rumor that several of the wounded people were later arrested by the Syrian police. Following an investigation, the Red Crescent attested that these charges are absolutely unfounded.
On Saturday 25th, the International Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent asked the Free “Syrian” Army for permission to re-enter the area. Being on the spot, I offered my services to the authorities to facilitate the removal of my compatriots and colleagues. The negotiations lasted over four hours. Several states, including France, were kept abreast of these events.
After several twists and turns, the officers of the Free “Syrian” Army received the instruction via satellite to decline. Their encrypted communications with their superiors either ended up in Beirut or were relayed via Beirut. De facto the journalists are being used as human shields even more effectively than civilians, the rebels fearing a final assault by Syrian forces.
Therefore, journalists are now the prisoners of those who sponsor the Free “Syrian” Army, the very same ones on whose behalf the “Friends of Syria,” gathered at the Tunis conference, appealed for support, funds and arms.