BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels retreated Thursday from a neighborhood in Homs that they had held for months, saying they were running out of weapons and humanitarian conditions were catastrophic after almost four weeks of government bombardment.
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.
A Syrian official said Wednesday the government was planning a major offensive to "cleanse" the rebel-held Baba Amr district of Homs once and for all as activists reported troops massing outside the neighborhood in western Homs.
The Baba 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 Baba Amr. But many have fled over the past year and the population is believed to be much reduced and it is not clear how many people remain there.
The siege of Baba 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 Baba Amr "is still strong." It was not immediately clear what escape route the rebels used.
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 Baba Amr and troops have been unable to enter so far.
Syrian activists said government forces had cut off communications to Baba Amr, jamming satellite phone signals as they mass for an apparent ground assault. The neighborhood has been under siege for about four weeks and hundreds have died in shelling.
Authorities had previously blocked land and mobile phone lines, but activists were able to communicate with the outside world with satellite phones.
The activist Revolutionary Council of Homs said it could no longer reach anyone inside Baba Amr. All satellite signals were jammed, it said.
Ghalioun laid out the plans for a military council to organize and unify all armed resistance to Assad's regime.
The Paris-based leadership of the Syrian National Council said its plan was coordinated with the most potent armed opposition force — the Free Syrian Army — made up mainly of army defectors.
"The revolution started peacefully and kept up its peaceful nature for months, but the reality today is different and the SNC must shoulder its responsibilities in the face of this new reality," Ghalioun told reporters in Paris, saying any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council.
Still he tried to play down the risks of all-out civil war between the regime and the opposition.
"We want to control the use of weapons so that there won't be a civil war," he said. "Our aim is to help avoid civil war."
Civil war has been the worst-case scenario in Syria. Sectarian warfare is a real, terrifying possibility in a country with a fragile mix of ethnic groups including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more. Both sides have accused each other of leading the nation down the path of civil war. Ghalioun's comments made clear that he does not want the opposition to be blamed.
The SNC has called for arming rebels in the past, but this was the first time it sought to organize the fighters under one umbrella. But it was not clear how successful the SNC will be in unifying the various anti-Assad forces. The opposition's main problem over the past year has been its inability to coalesce behind a single leader or ideology beyond toppling the regime.
Meanwhile, international pressure on the regime has been growing more intense by the day. The U.N.'s top human rights body voted to condemn Syria for its "widespread and systematic violations" against civilians, and the U.K. and Switzerland closed their embassies in Damascus over worsening security. The U.S. closed its embassy in February.
But the U.S. has not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged conflict because of Syria's complex web of allegiances in the region that extend to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The Syrian conflict began as mostly peaceful protests, which drew an iron-fisted military crackdown. But the revolt has turned increasingly militarized. There are near daily clashes between armed military defectors and government forces and the rebels have managed to capture and hold small pieces of territory, notably in and around Homs and along the northern border with Turkey.
Western powers trying to help the anti-government forces oust Assad have repeatedly stressed the importance of the fragmented opposition pulling together. The SNC announcement seemed to respond to those calls.
"The Military Bureau will track the armed opposition groups, organize and unify their ranks under one central command, defining their defense missions while placing them under the political supervision of the SNC, and coordinating their activities in accordance with the overall strategy of the revolution," the SNC said in a statement.
Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday voted 37 in favor and three against a resolution proposed by Turkey that calls on Syria to immediately stop all attacks on civilians and grant unhindered access to aid groups.
Three members of the 47-nation body abstained and four didn't vote.
Russia, China and Cuba objected to the resolution.
The Geneva-based council's vote carries no legal weight but diplomats consider it a strong moral signal that may encourage a similar resolution in the powerful U.N. Security Council.
The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms against the regime.
Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.
In Kuwait, the parliament Thursday passed a non-binding resolution calling on the government to help arm the Syrian opposition and to break diplomatic ties with Assad's regime. A day earlier, parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to recognize the SNC as the country's sole representatives.
There was no immediate reaction from the rulers in the oil-rich Gulf state. Some lawmakers also have proposed severing diplomatic ties with Assad's regime, but the issue has not come up for full debate.