Syrian army ready to launch ‘final offensive’ in Homs?
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After three weeks of heavy shelling from the army, Syrian tanks entered the Baba Amr district of Homs on Thursday. Is the regime launching a final offensive on the rebels?
For almost three weeks now, the city of Homs, nicknamed “the capital of the revolution” by anti-regime protesters, has suffered daily shelling from the army. Surrounded by some 56 tanks and vans, at least 250 rockets and shells were fired into the south-western Baba Amr district in just 24-hours on Tuesday, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The worst of the offensive came just days after the Bashar al-Assad regime announced a February 26 referendum on a new draft constitution, and just days before the “Friends of Syria” conference is to be held in Tunisia.
Hundreds of people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the bombardments. On Wednesday, 24 civilians and two Western journalists – American veteran war reporter Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik – fell victim to the latest bombardment. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the number of deaths since the beginning of the repression 11 months ago has now risen to 7,600.
“The regime is preparing to launch its final offensive in order to crush the rebels in Baba Amr,” Fabrice Balanche, director of the Lyon-based Group for Research and Study of the Mediterranean and Middle East, explains. “The district is one of the strongest forces of resistance.” Balanche says that once the civilians have fled the district, the army will be able to more easily target the rebels.
Some two thirds of the inhabitants have already fled the district according to local residents. Among those who remain are hundreds of deserters who have quit the regime forces to join the rebels. “Almost 70% of the district has been destroyed,” says political analyst and member of the Syrian National Council, Bassma Kodmani. “Homs has become a symbol that the regime is willing to destroy at any price.”
Same strategy in Homs as in Hama
For Fabrice Balanche, this “final push” from the army is unavoidable. “I expected to see it happen already last year,” he says. “But the Arab League observer mission gave the rebels some reprise. The Russians played a part too – it would have been difficult for Moscow to have continued supporting the Assad regime if they carried out a massacre like the one in Hama in 1982.
Exactly 30 years ago, the Assad regime, then led by Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, staged a month-long offensive on Hama, destroying an entire third of the city and killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people.
“There is a comparison to be drawn between Homs and Hama,” Balanche argues. He says the army strategy in the two towns, 30 years apart, is the same. “They allow the rebels to regroup then take position accordingly. They then shoot at inhabitants who don’t overtly support them, provoking the rebels to shoot back in the same violent manner, which in turn loses them support among the local population. It’s at that point that the army sweeps in and crushes the rebellion.
“The army has already employed this tactic in other towns,” Balanche goes on. “Notably in Rankus in the north-east of the country, and Idler in the south.” Balanche believes that the regime will manage to take back control of the country, in military terms, in the coming months. “The country is going to be split in half between those for and against the Assad regime”, he explains.
“The authorities want to be in a strong enough position so that they have the upper hand when it comes to negotiating with the rebels. But the civil war will go on no matter what happens. The public no longer believe in the reforms promised by Assad.”
On February 26, the regime will hold a referendum on a new draft constitution that would introduce a multi-party political system – the first of its kind after 40 years of authoritarian Assad rule. “Turnout will probably be very low,” Balanche says. “It’s probably actually a way for Bashar al-Assad to work out how much support he has in the country before he gets to the negotiation table.”