Syrian regime tanks and artillery shelled rebel positions Thursday in the central old city district of Homs, according to rebels and anti-government activists, who said they believe that the last rebel bastion will be overwhelmed by government forces in the coming days.
One of the first Syrian cities to rise up against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Homs often has been described by the rebels as the symbolic capital of the 3-year-old civil war, which has killed more than 150,000.
Besieged for almost 700 days, the narrow streets and stone buildings of the old city continue to provide a haven to what rebels claim are nearly 1,000 Islamist fighters who rejected a United Nations-brokered truce earlier this year that allowed hundreds of civilians and rebels – many badly malnourished – to flee the siege.
But after another round of U.N.-mediated talks to end the siege failed, the remaining rebel areas came under heavy bombardment in the last week as government troops – backed by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon – began a final push, according to an anti-government activist who has remained behind.
“If there is not a cease-fire, the old city will fall within days,” said Abu Rami al-Homsi.
Al-Homsi, whose name is an alias, said some rebel units “have been trying to defect, and many rebels want to negotiate a withdrawal with the regime to leave the populated areas for the countryside.”
Syrian state media have denied any such talks were underway and lauded the recent operations as having cleared “nests of terrorists.”
Al-Homsi described many of the remaining rebels as starving, a reflection of the government’s successful tactic of cutting off rebel-held areas from food supplies for months before offering to negotiate a cease-fire to allow some food aid in and much of the population to flee, and rebel units either to surrender or disperse.
“The regime is trying to tempt starving fighters to surrender with promises of food and visits with their families,” he said. Dozens of fighters appeared willing to take the offer, he said.
The majority of the rebel fighters who remain in the old city appear to belong to al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and its radical rival, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Despite fighting one another in eastern Syria, the groups remain battlefield allies in the western part of the country.
Nusra on Wednesday claimed responsibility for a series of suicide car bombings on government checkpoints in Homs that were thought to have been failed attempts to break out of the area. An estimated 60 people were killed by the blasts.
One rebel commander who spoke with The Associated Press said the continued fighting was designed to keep a cease-fire from happening to prevent even more defections from the rebel ranks.
“Some of us are against those deserting. We are fighting so they can die in (Homs),” AP quoted the rebel as saying. The agency identified the rebel as Abu Bilal. It did not identify the rebel group for which he fights.
The Syrian government in recent weeks has consolidated control over several major population centers, including Homs and the eastern suburbs of Damascus, in advance of presidential elections now set for June 3. Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, remains split between rebel and regime control, while the provincial capital of Raqaa is the only large Syrian city under rebel control.