On Wednesday, Syrian rebels began withdrawing from the city of Homs in west-central Syria. Militarily, it's probably not going to change the course of the conflict. Symbolically, it's quite important. Homs was known as the "capital of the revolution," and the damage that's been done to it since this all began as a series of protests is emblematic of horrible turn the country has taken as a whole.
Homs had been under blockade by the Syrian government for about 2 years. Before the agreement between all parties to cede the city to Bashar al-Assad's government forces, Assad troops had pinned rebels down in the central Old City. Thousands of civilians were trapped in the city — according to a spokesperson for the World Food Programme, "they were living on leaves and grass and olives and whatever they could find."
Rebels had been trying to negotiate a withdrawal from Homs for months, as their position was strategically untenable. This map from March showing territory full of Assad troops (in red) surrounding Homs, explains why:
Homs isn't the gateway to rebel-controlled territory, or a particularly important supply line today. The rebel presence was a vestigial force, clinging on to territory they once controlled.
Homs was once famous for its restive, fiery anti-government protests. It's easy to forget now, but the Syrian uprising began as a non-violent revolt, escalated by Assad's brutal attacks on the protestors. Homs, a place one million people used to call home, saw some of the largest and most prominent protests. Like this one, from January 2012:
Around then, the fighting in Homs was escalating. Today, large swaths of the city look more like this:
That's why the rebel retreat from Homs is of such symbolic importance to both sides. The government victory was a particularly brutal conquest of the place that housed the rebellion's formerly optimistic spirit.