Syrian opposition forces said they were making a "tactical retreat" from a besieged district in Homs following a punishing, month-long military assault.
The anti-government fighters said on Thursday that they were running out of weapons and humanitarian conditions were catastrophic.
After days of appeals from humanitarian groups, the Syrian government has reportedly granted permission to the International Committee of the Red Cress to operate in Bab Amr on Friday.
Hisham Hassan, a Red Cross spokesman, told the Associated Press news agency on Thursday that the aid group received a "green light" to bring in emergency supplies and carry out evacuations of civilians affected by the governments attacks.
As the offensive on the central city of Homs intensified, Syria's main opposition group formed a military council to organize the armed resistance and funnel weapons to rebels, a sign of how deeply militarized the conflict has become over the past year as Syria veers closer to a civil war.
The Bab Amr rebels brigade said they were pulling out to spare some 4,000 civilians who insisted on staying in their homes. They said the decision was based on "worsening humanitarian conditions, lack of food and medicine and water, electricity and communication cuts as well as shortages in weapons".
Homs is Syria's third-largest city with about 1 million people. Before the revolt began, activists estimated 100,000 people lived in Bab Amr. But many have fled over the past year and the population is believed to be much reduced.
The siege of Bab Amr has been among the deadliest of the uprising. Rebels had held the area for several months, but in early February, regime forces surrounded the neighborhood and began firing tank shells that slammed into homes and killed hundreds of people.
Many of the wounded could not reach doctors, forcing residents to set up makeshift clinics for crowds of bloodied victims. The relentless attacks disrupted electricity, Internet and telephone services.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, told a news conference in Paris that rebels have relocated from some areas but said the resistance in Bab Amr "is still strong". It was not immediately clear what escape route the rebels used.
Communication with residents in the district was difficult. Electricity and phone lines have been cut off, and an activist from the Syrian Network for Human Rights told Al Jazeera that the government was using a new technology to jam satellite phone signals.
Before the retreat was announced, Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there was "fierce fighting" at the entrances to Bab Amr.
In response to the worsening crackdown, the Syrian National Council, the largest opposition body, said it had formed a "military bureau" to organise the armed resistance against Assad.
The SNC said it wanted to funnel arms to rebel fighters in the country through the bureau. Army defectors are operating clandestinely in Damascus
"We know that some countries have expressed a desire to arm the revolutionaries.
The SNC, via its military bureau, wanted to organise this flow to avoid direct arms deliveries from particular countries," president Burhan Ghalioun said in Paris.
Al Jazeera's Nisreen el-Shamayleh, reporting from Jordan, said the SNC wanted to ensure it would supervise the arms supply and that the rebels were not armed haphazardly.
Samir al-Taqi, a former adviser to Assad, said he believed the president was probably getting most of his advice from the security apparatus and believed he could "decapitate the political opposition".
But he said the opposition seemed to be coming together.
"We have to understand that the uprising is a movement from bottom up and what is happening now in Syria is thousands and thousands of people are just pushed [into] the political arena. That's why they are for diversified or fragmented," Taqi told Al Jazeera.
'Disappointment' with Russia
The Syrian government's diplomatic isolation continued to grow with Switzerland and the United Kingdom both announcing the closure of their embassies.
William Hague, the United Kingdom's foreign minister, said British diplomats were being withdrawn from Syria for "security reasons".
Meanwhile, foreign ministers from Gulf countries planned to "express their disappointment" with Russia's stance on Syria during a meeting next week in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, with the Russian foreign minister, the Kuwaiti foreign minister said on Thursday.
Sabah Khaled al-Sabah spoke at an emergency session of the newly elected Kuwaiti parliament called to discuss the escalating crackdown. Russia and China have twice wielded vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to block UN support for Arab League plans to usher a transition from Assad's rule.
Sabah said that Gulf nations would "call on Russia to take a position that will meet the aspirations of the Syrian people."
The United Nations Human Rights Council also condemned Syria for widespread violations that it said may amount to crimes against humanity and called for a halt to attacks against civilians.
The 47-member forum, holding an urgent debate, voted by 37 states in favour and three against, including China and Russia. The resolution was brought by Gulf countries. There were three abstentions, and four delegations did not take part in the vote. Syria was not present.
Baba Amr is a neighborhood in the southwest corner of Homs, where much of the intensity from the government's response has been focused on. This has resulted in a siege, where the rebels are having difficulty in securing supplies and adversely affecting much of the city's inhabitants, even if they are in the more quiet neighborhoods on the other end of Homs.
This neighborhood was also where the two journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed, as well as where two injured journalists- Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy- were in. Conroy escaped from the city to Lebanon, and Bouvier reportedly is in Lebanon now too.
Where now? The Free Syrian Army still operates in parts of Syria, though it was in Homs where its presence was the most obvious. It maintains bases in Turkey currently, and the SNC desires to find a way to continue arming them, though this has provoked some divisions over whether or not escalating violence against an entrenched military will be feasible.
Lord of the Peach
19th April 2004
I think it is a smart move for them. No point throwing away hundreds of additional lives and endangering the local population just to hold on to a small section of a city. The FSA wants the population on their side, but having them getting killed in the shelling looks bad. As far as a battle goes, I think the FSA won this one despite pulling out. They got the world's attention and some material support from other Arab nations.
It is better to get your fighters spread out for what looks to be an insurgency. There are more than enough people floating around the region who have insurgency experience. The US had a tough time with insurgents in Iraq, I expect the Syrians to have it worse than the US did.
Pethegreat;5617183 It is better to get your fighters spread out for what looks to be an insurgency. There are more than enough people floating around the region who have insurgency experience. The US had a tough time with insurgents in Iraq, I expect the Syrians to have it worse than the US did.
It depends. Some in the FSA reported very early on that morale in the regular army was shit terrible and the people were with them- but this has been going on for months now without any appreciable gains by FSA beyond small cells like those that popped up here in Homs.
I think what compounded the US's involvement in Iraq with those insurgents is it was able to be portrayed as a fight against a foreign occupation force- the same advantage doesn't exist in Syria for that purpose. The government knows this and is playing up fears domestically and subtly abroad by emphasizing its 'stabilizing' effects against what it's writing off as "Muslim Brotherhood" infested rebels that would harm the 'protected' minorities of the country, and plunge it into instability like Iraq. Interestingly US sided with Egypt in this regard when Mubarak employed the same language justifying what he was doing against popular protests (replace Copts with Assyrians and you get what Assad is spewing right now)/
What the FSA is trying to do is see if the economy grinds down enough to cause more defections from the government (as was attempted in Libya), which relies on a clientele system. I'm not sure what continued arming of the FSA can do unless one nation in the region gets more invested in it, and this has become kind of a conflict of interest between Turkey on one end and the Gulf Kingdoms on the other. Turkey's already ahead in its respect, allowing the FSA to operate from Hatay (ironically claimed by Arab nationalists as a rightful part of Syria). Guess it could mirror Turkey's own increasing economic involvement in Iraq.
Lord of the Peach
19th April 2004
In the long run I would like to see Turkey become the dominant influence in Syria. They are the most secular country with a Muslim majority. Secular governments who respect the rights of all people in a nation will help the middle east more than any amount of aid from 1st world countries like the US. At the same time those countries who chose a theocratic government should be left to their own devices. The people elected their government; let them feel the consequences. If that government wants to abuse the population then only the people are to blame for it.
I find the whole Arab spring movement ironic because the US spent close to a trillion dollars to install a democratic government in Iraq by force. Some American college drop outs made billions by constructing a tool, social networks, which helped to spread democracy better than a trillion dollar war machine. The republican mantra of private industry over government interference has upset one of things republicans defend most.
Between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states and Turkey, I'd much rather see the later take a leading role in Syria. Like you said they have better institutions and such that would probably fly better with people, as opposed to the more bullish gulf states. Though of course no one is without their faults, this factor has made the Kurdish minority in particular apathetic towards the SNC, worried that it might perpetuate what they had been experiencing under Assad. Kurdish minority has been divided in this regard as to how to respond to this whole matter, though their youth have been active in demonstrations that came up in Damascus and Aleppo, as well as some of the more Kurdish cities like Efrin and Qamislo.
Assad still seems to be pulling the Assyrians along though, or at least has been making use of them to talk to foreign press and the Arab League observers about how the government has been protecting them.
I guess like you too I'd be interested in seeing if Syria could pull some changes on their own rather than a government that was installed after a war with an outside power, and see how it compares to Iraq's progress. Of course Assad has also taken advantage of this by claiming it would be exactly like Iraq and cause a refugee flight, in particular towards the Assyrians.