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Rebels in Syrian city are surrounded, braced for assault

QUSAYR, Syria — This city of 35,000 is largely empty. Seven miles from the Lebanese border, it is the last rebel stronghold in this part of Syria.

Residents and rebel fighters spoke in hushed tones about the shelling they expect to begin any day. Those who have decided to stay are resigned to their fate. The Syrian military holds positions in some neighborhoods in the city, and tanks were said to be taking up positions surrounding Qusayr in preparation for a final assault.

"We are expecting the attack this hour, tonight or tomorrow," said Fatma, who like other people interviewed for this story used a pseudonym. "We are ready, God-willing. The army is big. It will destroy the houses. We are expecting a complete destruction of the city."

Fatma said the army had entered the city three times before, and that the assault on Qusayr could be worse than the attack on Homs.

Homs, a city 10 miles north of Qusayr, was shelled daily for nearly a month. The army attack culminated in a raid on Baba Amr, the city's most restive neighborhood. Activists there report that the military executed civilians. Shelling has leveled most of the neighborhood, killing an unknown number of people.

"Where will we go?" asked Um Abdo, as she knitted a scarf in the colors of the flag the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors and volunteers who took up arms against the Syrian military about six months ago with the purpose protecting demonstrators.

"This scarf is for my son, when he is released from prison," she said.

Asked if she would be at the demonstration the next day, Um Abdo, whose nickname means mother of Abdo, took out a list of all the demonstrations she has attended since the revolution began one year ago.

"Fifty-one," she said, adding the demonstration the following day to the list as she spoke.

FSA commanders have said they will not fight for Qusayr, but are maintaining a defensive posture. They are calling the FSA's retreat from Homs tactical.

"We can't face the tanks. We get weapons from the defectors. We also capture weapons and buy them from corrupt captains in the Syrian army," said Ebro, a Free Syrian Army fighter and former Syrian army lieutenant.

"We need weapons," he said.

At an FSA safe house outside Qusayr, the arsenal was clearly light — mostly a half dozen Kalashnikovs, M-16s and M-4s. A .50-caliber machine gun taken from the Syrian army lay against a wall. One man walked in carrying a hunting rifle. Rocket-propelled grenades were observed being smuggled into the country, but the men at this safe house had none.

"That is how the FSA started," said Abu Rami, a commander, using a nickname that in Arabic means father of Rami.

"We just took whatever weapons we had," Abu Rami said, picking up a 12-guage shotgun hanging on the wall for emphasis.

Meanwhile, activists outside Syria pledged that their opposition to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad would continue. But there is a definite disconnect between events outside Syria and inside.

On a snowy morning, the fighters did little and sat watching Al Jazeera, which was broadcasting a press conference with Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Committee, a group of mostly exiled opposition leaders. The reaction was mixed.

"They're not doing enough," said Argab, an FSA fighter who defected from the Syrian army six months ago.

"There is contact between FSA and the Syrian National Council, but I have no idea about its leaders," said Ebro. Others had little notion of what the SNC might be doing, or who was in charge. The topic of discussion generally moved to the brutality of the Syrian security forces against demonstrators and the need for self-defense.

On Friday, Um Abdo was indeed at the demonstration, along with Fatma and a crowd of about 100 others.

Activists said three other demonstrations took place, and that a single large demonstration had been avoided for fear of the Syrian army positions in some of the city's neighborhoods.

"The people need weapons for the Free Syrian Army," the crowd chanted to the beat of a drum, at times dancing.

The demonstrators dispersed after about half an hour, without incident. A handful of FSA fighters were present. In Rastan, north of Homs, the Syrian military shelled a demonstration, killing at least one child.

Before the demonstration, at a nearby mosque, men collected donations for the FSA after Friday prayers before dozens of the worshippers walked to the demonstration in rain and snow. As they passed mostly empty houses and at least one building that had been shelled, some of the residents who remained in the neighborhood came outside. A number held Kalashnikovs and voiced their support for arming the FSA.

In his sermon, the imam at the mosque exhorted people to join the fight against the government.

"Just because Baba Amr falls, it doesn't mean the revolution ends," said Abu Beraa, a retired Syrian army captain who has one son in prison and other in the FSA. "It should be encouragement for the revolutionaries."

"There is no step back," Abu Beraa said. "Whatever we pay, we keep going. If the revolution fails, we die. We won't accept any solution that involves Assad staying."

After Friday's demonstration, FSA leaders and activists insisted that the last foreign journalists in Qusayr leave, fearing that the only route out of the city would soon be cut off.

They needed it for supplies and to evacuate the wounded, not for transporting reporters.


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