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Assad forces on the offensive from Damascus to Mediterranean

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad retook a central district in the city of Homs on Thursday, driving a wedge between two isolated pockets of rebel resistance in Syria’s third largest city, fighters and activists said.

The recapture of Wadi al-Sayeh, which links the besieged rebel stronghold in Khalidiyah to the opposition-held old city, appears to be part of a series of carefully focused counter-offensives that mark a shift from the indiscriminate campaigns earlier in the two-year-old conflict.

Homs is a link in the corridor connecting Assad’s Damascus powerbase with the traditional Mediterranean heartland of his minority Alawite community. It was an early center of the mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.

Following recent gains in rural areas around Homs, Assad’s forces surrounded the towns of Baida and Maqreb on the road to the coastal city of Banias on Thursday, activists said, the latest stage in a campaign to secure the corridor.

They also seized Qaysa town on the eastern edge of Damascus, part of a steady move north from airport on the city’s south-eastern edge which would create a line of control locking down the eastern approaches to the city and close off weapons supplies from the Jordanian border.

A call issued by several activists in the area warned the disparate rebel forces to pull together or face defeat.

“If you do not unite under one flag the regime is going to hunt you down, one brigade after another,” it said.

Assad has lost control of much of northern and eastern Syria in the fighting, which the United Nations says has killed 70,000 people, and is battling rebels in most cities. But he says his forces still hold the upper hand.

On Monday, his prime minister escaped assassination when a bomb struck his convoy, killing six people. The president appeared two days later, touring an electricity power station and saying he would not be forced into hiding.

“This is a challenge to us to cower in fear or remain fearless. We will not be afraid,” Assad said.


In Homs, a rebel fighter told Reuters by Skype that pro-Assad forces from the paramilitary National Defense Army were making gains.

“They managed to take large parts of Wadi al-Sayeh – the besieged area is being divided as we speak,” he said.

Before moving in, the fighters had blown up buildings.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the operation to recapture Wadi al-Sayeh was coordinated by forces from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, both allies of Assad.

The Homs rebel said men captured by rebels reported being trained in Iran and the rebels also heard Lebanese accents among some fighters speaking on intercepted radio messages.

Iran and Hezbollah have denied sending forces to fight alongside Assad’s troops but Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been increasingly open about the group’s presence in Syria, where he says it is defending Lebanese and Shi’ite communities from attack by Sunni Muslim rebels.

In coastal Banias province, activists and residents said Assad’s forces were surrounding the towns of Baida and Maqreb and firing mortar rounds at them.

Locals on both sides said clashes were still going on. The Observatory said at least six soldiers and militiamen were killed and at least 20 wounded.

“There are also witness reports of executions against residents, some of them by gunfire and others by knives at the hands of regime forces and loyalist gunmen (the shabbiha),” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory.

Rockets were also falling on the outskirts of Banias city itself and smoke could be seen rising from the area, he said.


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