- - Thursday, April 26, 2018

CAIRO — Having secured the last rebel-held areas around Damascus, the Syrian government army is on the move again, this time targeting a stubborn, opposition-held pocket north of Homs.

Despite a several-year siege, the compact agricultural communities of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla in the north of Homs province — the largest in Syria — have held out so far, but a bombing campaign by President Bashar Assad’s army could prove hard to resist and bring another victory for his increasingly confident forces.

Strikes by the Syrian air force and its Russian allies Wednesday hit the rebel-held town of Rastan, 16 miles north of Homs, eyewitnesses said.

“There were four raids, each of them lasting about 10 minutes, and during the third raid one of the houses in my neighborhood was destroyed,” said Shible Ayoub, a 48-year-old supervisor at a local fertilizer plant.

A 6-year-old blockade by government troops against Rastan’s 70,000 civilians intensified last May after Mr. Assad’s forces took complete control of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. Most of the country’s major urban areas, including Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, are now in government hands.

More roadblocks manned by government troops appeared in rural Homs this week after gains by the Syrian army around Ghouta — the last large rebel outpost in the Damascus suburbs and the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack by the government on the last holdouts.

“Government forces have put us under siege since 2011, but we have survived on the fava beans, wheat, figs and apricots we grow in the countryside around us,” said Mr. Ayoub. “But over time it’s been more difficult to buy petrol and cooking oil, and people are so poor that they are selling their furniture to get fuel to run electricity generators and feed their children.”

The Syrian army and its allies — Russians with their air power and foreign Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran — have used siege and bombardment tactics to drive the remaining rebel groups into submission, sometimes negotiating relocation deals to bus opposition fighters and their families to northern Syria, mostly in Idlib province to the north of Homs.

Ali Haidar, the Syrian national reconciliation minister charged with implementing the evacuation deals, told the Reuters news agency Monday that the government turned to the opposition-held pocket north of Homs after securing the areas around Damascus.

“The issue will not be a long time coming after the final resolution in Qalamoun,” said Mr. Haidar, referring to a strategic mountain range between Damascus and the Lebanese border.

Mr. Haidar said the government had been dropping leaflets and communicating with rebels in Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla, a region with more than 300,000 Sunni Muslim civilians largely supportive of the armed opposition.

“Armed groups wait to feel the seriousness and determination of the state’s military action before they approach serious discussion of a reconciliation agreement. The options are open: full reconciliation or military action where necessary,” said Mr. Haidar.

‘Stronger’ than Ghouta

Rebel commanders around Homs, who have held out against government pressure for seven years now, insist they will not be dislodged as easily as the rebel forces around Damascus.

“This region is stronger than Ghouta because of its agricultural crops and livestock,” said Col. Fatih Hassoun, the leader of the Free Syrian Army’s Central Front. “This statement by the criminal Ali Haider is part of the psychological warfare used against our side to cause confusion.”

Col. Hassoun headed the opposition military delegation to the peace talks last year in Astana, Kazakhstan. The talks, brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey, resulted in “de-escalation” deals considered highly disadvantageous to the rebels and their supporters.

“We are fighting to gain time until political pressure is exerted on the regime to stop it from taking control of the region and preventing the forcible displacement of the population in the Homs countryside,” Col. Hassoun said.

Rebels consolidated their hold in the north of Homs province shortly after the June 2012 government massacre in the village of Taldou, near the town of Houla, where United Nations observers on the ground confirmed that at least 108 people had been killed. The dead included 49 children and 34 women shot point-blank by shabiha, a paramilitary militia comprised of members from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect.

“This is when a large number of officers deserted from Assad’s criminal regime and took their military experience and wisdom with them,” said Dyaa Kadoor, a 30-year-old captain in the Free Syrian Army in Houla. “We will fight to the last breath.”

Capt. Kadoor said his troops have spent the past several weeks digging trenches for the fighters and bomb shelters for civilians.

“We have fortifications on all fronts and are reinforcing them now, because we knew that when Assad was finished with Ghouta he would come toward us,” Capt. Kadoor said.

Yet doctors in the area fear they will not be able to cope if the regime launches the kind of chemical weapons attack carried out April 7 in the town of Douma in the Damascus suburbs.

The World Health Organization said at least 40 people died and another 500 were affected by that attack, which Western intelligence sources believe was a mixture of chlorine and possibly a nerve agent such as sarin gas. Syria and Russia deny that they were behind any chemical attack.

“Thank God no one was injured in the bombing yesterday,” said Dr. Jamal Edeen Bahboh, 38, who manages a network of hospitals and clinics in the Homs countryside for the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation in Rastan. “But as the Assad forces approach us, we are worried about a chemical attack.”

The town suffered a chemical attack in August 2015 that resulted in five deaths and multiple injuries, and Dr. Bahboh said residents are not ready for another one.

“Our stock of medicines has been reduced in the past month because of the siege, and we need protective masks, anti-chemical drugs,” said Dr. Bahboh. “We are calling on the United States to ensure that the United Nations can bring these supplies to Rastan and the rest of the Homs countryside.”


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