Syrian armed forces made further advances into the Old City of Homs on Tuesday in an ongoing onslaught against rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. It has been reported that about 1000 rebels are hiding around the city, in what is considered a rapidly fading holdout against Assad’s government. According to security sources, the president’s troops began a broad systematic offensive in the center of the city by securing buildings and “tightening the noose around the terrorist groups.” The Syrian authorities have defined all those who want the ouster of the Assad-led Ba’ath government as terrorists.
Unrest started in Syria in 2011, when massive protests swept across the nation. Like the Arab Spring that gripped North Africa and the Middle East, the Syrian protests called for democratic and economic reforms within the existing government. In April 2011, troops loyal to Assad mounted a military siege and fired at gathered protestors. Very quickly, the massive demonstrations devolved into what the United Nations (UN) calls sectarian violence. For the past three years, Assad’s mostly Alawite government forces, militias and other Shiite groups have been engaged in bloody combat with Sunni-dominated rebel groups. According to the UN, the death toll surpassed 100,000 in June 2013 and reached 120,000 by September 2013.
The latest push by the Syrian security forces against Homs, once dubbed the capital of the revolution, came in the aftermath of a bomb explosion outside a mosque in the government-controlled part of the city. According to state television, the blast occurred after the end of weekly Muslim prayers last Friday at the Bilal al-Habshi mosque at the edge of the Akrama neighborhood and killed 14 people as well as injuring dozens.
The blast is one in a series of violent events that has torn Homs apart and decimated large parts of it. Corroborating state television, Director Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the army had advanced into parts of the Old City and were shelling specific districts. Calling them street battles, Rahman, whose group collects information about the conflict from a network of medics on the ground and opposition activists, said that Assad’s troops were not moving forward rapidly because the neighborhood buildings were mined.
According to activists on the ground, fewer than 1,000 people remain in the besieged parts of Homs city as the Syrian Army advances. Most of the remaining fighters are looking for an exit strategy while a few hardcore rebels have vowed to battle it out to the end and were “preparing themselves with suicide belts.”
Releasing a statement after the recent attack, Rawad Ahmad Al Kassah, a rebel commander in the countryside to the north of the city said, “Our beloved Homs is in danger. . . . Our enemy is at their door.” Calling on his fellow rebels to rally, he asked them to unify and retake Homs as the capital of the Syrian revolution.
But as army jets bombard the rebel-held parts of the city and the cornered fighters respond with mortar fire, the city of Homs has become what the UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi calls, a “theatre of death and destruction.” Brahimi, along with members of the UN Security Council expressed deep concern over the plight of Syrian rebels and Homs residents caught in the renewed fighting. He urged both sides to resume peace talks that had broken off in February. There appears to be minimal chance of that happening. Meanwhile, Homs continues to experience dreadful conflict as the Syrian Army advances into the city and systematically destroys rebel strongholds.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay