AMMAN, Jordan (USATODAY.com) — The rebel abandonment of Homs, a city known as the "capital of the "revolution," is the strongest sign yet that the dream of toppling Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from within has failed.
"We were under siege for so long," said rebel Orhan Ghazi. "The people of Homs have begun to move away from thinking about the revolution. They want to live, and that's it."
Assad is running for re-election June 3 for a job in which he is the only real candidate at a time when the Sunni rebels who have fought his regime for three years are severely weakened by losses in what were once their strongholds.
Last week, green buses full of armed rebels snaked their way through the ruins of Homs, a rebel bastion that had been pounded from the air by Assad forces relentlessly since May 2011. Rebels had withstood shelling and snipers, a cutoff of water and electricity, and the obliteration of their neighborhoods one after the other.
Hemmed into the Old Quarter of the city, the anti-Assad fighters had no choice but retreat.
"The rebels are in bad shape – they can't win this war," said Joshua Lendis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. "On the other hand, it is going to be hard for the regime to defeat them because the rebels get money and arms from the outside."
With the fall of Homs, the Syrian government now controls about 50% of the territory and two of the country's largest city hubs: the other being the capital of Damascus, says Lebanese military expert Wehbe Katisha, a former general.
"Assad has certainly managed to score points in the last few weeks, but it is still a bit premature to say that the Syrian rebellion is over," says Katisha.
One year ago it looked as if Assad may go the way of other Arab despots toppled by popular uprisings demanding democratic reforms. The so-called Arab Spring ousted dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
In Syria, Sunni Muslims who are the majority had risen up in 2011 and taken territory throughout Syria. Bolstered by an influx of foreign militants seeking an Islamic state, the rebels inched within miles of the capital of Damascus as Syrian army artillery shelling and air bombardments failed to dislodge them.
President Obama and European powers were poised in August to launch strikes against Syrian positions for Assad's use of chemical weapons to massacre hundreds of civilians in violation of a "red-line" the president had set for taking action.
But then well-trained Shiite Muslim fighters from Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon poured into Syria to take the lead in battles against rebels. Iran sent in military trainers and officers, Russia blocked military action at the U.N. Security Council and refused to abide by a ban on weaponry to its ally, Assad. Obama backed away from his threat to bombard Syria.
And some rebel units are in fights against their Islamist allies in regions such as Deir Zour and Daraa.
"Obama's policy toward Syria is certainly the worst in years, one that will have adverse effects on the long-run for both the U.S as well as for us Syrians," says Syrian activist Abu Obeida al-Chami, who has fled the Damascus suburbs to nearby Lebanon.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice has said the USA will continue "to empower the moderate Syrian opposition and bolster its efforts" inside Syria despite the latest developments. But the United States will not deviate from limiting its assistance to non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, the White House said.
Many rebels complained that they would have defeated Assad's regime by now had the West provided them with heavier weapons, such as anti-tank missiles and shoulder fired air missiles, to take out the mechanized armor and airplanes that Assad used to devastating effect.
Ammar al-Hosn, an activist who spoke from the Ghouta region, said the Sunnis were able to win the battle themselves if they received weapons instead of encouraging words from the West.
"We are fighting with light and medium-range weapons, much of which produced locally, but it is not enough," he said.
Al-Hosn admitted, though, that some of the fault lies with themselves.
"The infighting among rebel groups has distracted them from their original objective of overthrowing the regime," he said.
Abu Obeida agreed.
"Rebel factions could have united and successfully launched an attack on Damascus a long time ago," he said. "But the capital is considered as a red line not to be crossed by some foreign backers."
On Sunday, Assad kicked off his presidential campaign for a June 3 election in which he is the only true candidate. The man who has presided over the deaths of 150,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million Syrians appears safe for now, despite an official White House policy that he must go.
Meanwhile, the evacuation from Old Homs as it is known began Wednesday morning. A U.N.-brokered agreement between the two fronts allowed around 2,000 fighters to head to safer areas.
Analysts say the rebels still hold on to strategically important parts of Homs province, an important transit corridor. But the loss of the city hurts because Homs – Syria's third largest metropolis – has long been the beating heart of opposition movement.
Rebels throughout the country believed they had a chance when they saw their brethren in Homs refusing to surrender under a three-year assault.
"Those blockaded have seen their sons die from hunger in front of their own eyes, and see their brothers die from injuries inflicted from shelling," said Suhaib Ali, a spokesperson for the opposition Homs Front group.
"This was a decision by those on the ground, those who have suffered through the two-year long blockade."
As part of the deal, rebels agreed to allow humanitarian aid into the villages of northern Aleppo and will free a number of prisoners held by the Islamic Front, including an Iranian female detainee and Hezbollah combatants. Regime supporters see the deal as a win for their side.
"The settlement in Old Homs is a major breakthrough leading to the restoration of safety and stability in Old Homs," Homs governor Talal al-Barazi told pro-regime newspaper al-Watan.
James Denselow, research associate at the Foreign Policy Center in London, said the loss of Homs will have great effect on the rebellion.
"To have the opposition fighters evacuated in buses away from the center and have the regimes flag put up is symbolically hugely important for the regime and for its narrative that the conflict will cease soon," he said.
"It's no coincidence they followed up evacuation with bulldozers to remove rubble and the tourism minister has been up to inspect how many hotels are still open and this idea that it will somehow rapidly return to normal," he added.
"That is very much the regime's narrative of it being the only alternative to the chaos that is being sown by the terrorist fighters as they call it."
While rebels recognize the symbolic victory for Assad, they say the regime is making a mistake by making too much of the withdrawal. Some say the fall of the city will harden the stalemate between both sides.
"Homs is the capital of the revolution. It falls and Syria will be even more divided," said Ahmed al-Ahmed, a rebel in Aleppo.
Katisha points out that the foreign forces responsible for Assad's survival will not be able to remain forever. They just go home, and that will turn the advantage back to the rebellion. Abu Odai, spokesperson for the rebel group Feiliq a-Rahman outside Damascus, agrees that the revolution will live on and Homs is just a setback.
"If this truce is completed in Homs, it does not mean Homs has fallen into regime hands, it means the rebels of Homs will continue their struggle in other areas," he added. "Homs is a single place, not all of Syria."
Abu Obeida lamented that even if the rebels are one day victorious, it will be at the end of a vicious campaign in which fighters on all sides will have to account for their actions.
"How will we able to forgive each other for all the rapes and killings committed during this war? The revolution is very far from its original dreams of democracy and has turned into a regional war."
Contributing: Jad Salfiti and Luigi Serenelli in Berlin. Alami reported from Beirut.