AMMAN: Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliates have united with Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat a-Nusra for the first time in north Homs to confront an expected regime ground offensive supported by the Russian Air Force, Nasir a-Nahar, a rebel commander with the Homs Legion told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
“The Homs Legion, Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat a-Nusra have joined to form a new operations room to fight the coming threat,” said a-Nahar.
The expected regime assault will reportedly strike rebel positions (green) to the north of Homs from regime-held territory (brown) to the south. Map courtesy of Peto Lucem.
Rebel spies within regime ranks had observed tanks in addition to new war machines–infantry fighting vehicles, fixed and self-propelled artillery–arrive less than a kilometer northwest of Homs city, a-Nahar said. The arrival of regime armor and infantry units are in reported preparation to storm the rebels’ encircled enclave 3km to the north.
The countryside just north of Homs, spanning a constellation of villages–Talbisah, a-Rastan, a-Zafranah, all targets of Russian airstrikes last week–is ruled in part by the Islamist Ahrar a-Sham, and al-Qaeda’s Syria franchise Jabhat a-Nusra. Regime forces are pressing from the north and south, nearly splitting the territory in two.
The only other territory the rebels hold around the provincial capital is the small pocket of al-Waer in northwest Homs city, held by a mix of fighting brigades aligned with the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, cutoff from the larger rebel cauldron to the north
Should the offensive advance under Russian air cover to eliminate the rebel-held island, the regime would regain a 10km-stretch of the M5 highway moving north through Hama, while securing supply and transport routes west to the Sahel al-Ghab plains, and east to the city of Salamiyah, on the road northeast to Ithriyah and the regime’s Aleppo front.
Homs-based activists and journalists corroborate rebel accounts of the coming storm.
“For the last four days, I’ve been watching from my rooftop as regime tanks and vehicles roll in, about nine a day,” Abu al-Bira, a Homs-based journalist, told Syria Direct on Monday.
As the Syrian army “plans for an attack with Russian assistance,” wrote pro-regime al-Masdar News on Monday, it is also warning citizens and rebel fighters alike of the coming ground assault, reported pro-regime Assad Homs News Network on Monday.
Residents of Talbisah and Rastan received text messages on Monday informing them of the imminent attack: The Syrian army “would not target civilians,” and would seek only to “purify Syria of terrorists … restoring peace and security.”
“The regime is trying to play a psychological game,” Amir a-Deek, a Rastan based schoolteacher, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
“This time after reading it, we didn’t feel anything,” he said. “Those who don’t die in regime air raids will die when the regime invades.”
In addition to an SMS campaign, regime aircraft dropped leaflets on the same two villages “warning of the coming battle,” reported Russian Times on Tuesday.
Leaflets dropped Monday may have read the same as those reportedly dropped last week, entitled “You Have Two Choices–Not a Third:”
“You’ve taken up arms against your own people, your country and its citizens … they are overcome with pride and happiness, while you’re facing death … why? And for whom? The men of the Syrian Arab Army are determined to purify every inch of Syria–so you have two choices, and not a third: Either face certain death, or drop your weapons and come back to your nation.”
A regime propaganda leaflet, warning rebels to “drop their weapons, or face certain death.”
The gathering of regime armor comes on the heels of Russian airstrikes last week against alleged rebel targets in the northern Homs countryside.
Moscow has not publically stated that the airstrikes are intended, as suspected, to “soften up” rebel positions in preparation for a regime ground offensive. However, Russian Col. General Andrei Kartapolov claimed at a press conference on Saturday that “panic and desertion” had seized rebel ranks, and that “the Russian airstrikes will not only continue, but will be increased.”
Russian warplanes reportedly flew reconnaissance and possibly bombing sorties over Syria as recently as Monday night or early Tuesday morning.