HOMS, Syria — The grizzled veteran of Syria's
"They have trained snipers and they're good street fighters," said Abu Yusef, the nickname for the squad leader of a pro-government militia guarding the war-battered Bab Sbaa district, which was wrested from rebel control more than a year ago. "They've been fighting for a while."
This commercial hub on the highway between Damascus and Aleppo went from anonymity to global notoriety in 2011 as the cradle of the ongoing uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Two years later, the war grinds on here, mostly concentrated in the labyrinthine streets and alleys of the Old City, where rebels still maintain a presence in several districts.
A suicide car bomb on Saturday killed seven and injured 16 in Bab Sbaa, not far from where Abu Yusef and his fellow militiamen, along with Syrian army troops, keep guard along near-deserted streets, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes to pass the time between battles.
Rebels occasionally strike with mortars and car bombs; the government responds with artillery. Each side maintains sniper positions. The stalemate in Bab Sbaa has held for more than a year.
The fighting has left vast swaths of Homs depopulated and largely reduced to rubble.
The Baba Amr district, which achieved fame worldwide as a defiant rebel stronghold, is now a Stalingrad-like expanse of ruin where collapsed apartment buildings and wrecked shops provide vivid testament to the ferocity's of last year's battles. Bullet casings and the fins of mortar shells litter the streets.
The rebels withdrew from Baba Amr after months of government shelling, leaving behind a desolate and eerily quiet swath of urban dystopia. The army has now sealed off the area; journalists and other non-residents need special permission to enter.
"It's very simple what happened here," explained a merchant who was back Saturday trying to reopen his appliance shop, looted and in shambles. "The armed groups came. The army forced them out. And destruction happened."
Patrolling the abandoned streets Saturday afternoon was an army officer in a civilian car who said he was a veteran of the Baba Amr battle and had just participated in the successful military seizure of nearby Qusair, which had been in rebel hands for more than a year. The government has called the fall of Qusair a turning point in its fight to retain control. But the officer had no illusions that the war was close to ending.
"Qusair was just one more battle," said the officer, who declined to give his name. "I've had my friends die before my eyes."
The Syrian military has suffered huge losses in the war, though the government has released no official casualty figures. Still, government forces appear to have made significant advances in recent months, pushing back rebels not only in Qusair, but also in southern and northern Syria and in the suburbs of Damascus, the capital. The cost has been high both in lives and material destruction.
The major north-south highway from Damascus to Homs runs alongside some of the capital's most fought-over suburbs — Quaboun, Harasta and Douma — all heavily shelled districts where rebels and government forces still regularly engage in street battles. For motorists, braving the road means running a gantlet of errant gunfire and burned-out vehicles and debris strewn along a badly damaged highway, sometimes shrouded in smoke from burning buildings. Drivers gun their accelerators at maximum speed past an apocalyptic array of gutted blocks of apartments, charred gas stations and bombed-out car dealerships.
Once north of the capital confines, the main highway from Damascus to Homs seems relatively secure. Frequent military checkpoints are meant to guard against rebel infiltration. Opposition efforts to cut off the highway and isolate the capital from routes to the north and to the Mediterranean coast have thus far failed.
Entering Homs is a somewhat jarring experience. Apart from the checkpoints, there is little initial indication that much is amiss. Life appears to be largely unaffected in much of the city, especially in loyalist enclaves such as Zahara, where there has been little fighting. There area's boisterous main drag, Share Hadharah (Civilization Street), features buoyant cafes, busy shops and a brisk street life.
But the war is never far away in Homs. Last month, authorities said, rebel rocket fire hit an apartment building along Civilization Street, killing half a dozen people.
Today, with Baba Amr tamed, the Old City is the main battlefield. The area within the Old City known as Bab Sbaa (Lion's Gate) stands as the front line. Bullet holes mark buildings. Blocking one street are the rusted remains of an armored personal carrier gutted by an anti-tank rocket.
"Victory is near," proclaims rebel graffiti scrawled on a wall. "The group of Abu Ghazwan the Libyan passed by here."
Abu Yusef, the pro-government militiaman, shows some visiting journalists a 120-millimeter artillery shell that he says was fired two weeks ago by rebels based in one of the neighboring districts, Bab Houd or Khalidiya. The shell was filed and modified to fit into a homemade rocket launcher, he notes, expressing some admiration for the craftsmanship, if not the intent.
"The people who did this were deceived," he says, expressing a view common among Syrians loyal to the government. "At the beginning these demonstrations were mostly peaceful, then these weapons starting showing up. We were all surprised." Abu Yusef sees evidence of a "foreign conspiracy."
The opposition calls the armed uprising an inevitable outcome of government repression.
There's little sign of agreement as the two sides keep shooting at each other in Homs and so many other parts of Syria.