July 31, 2013
By Nuha Shaaban and Jacob Wirtschafter
AMMAN: Syria’s official media reported missiles fired at a government oil refinery in Homs on Wednesday, hinting at continued rebel resistance in a city which Assad forces claim to have vanquished.
State news agency SANA claims ground troops eliminated “several dens and gatherings for terrorists” in neighborhoods adjacent to the recently captured Khalidiya district, while the opposition Sham News Network reported intensive government shelling with “explosions rocking the city.”
Still, activists say the fight is not over yet.
“The city of Homs has not yet fallen,” says Bebers al-Talawi, a well-known citizen journalist and photographer in Homs. “There are 14 neighborhoods, and if one neighborhood falls after a year of shelling and assaults, this is a heroic act on the part of the rebels who are facing the regime army, the National Guard units, Hezbollah units and officers from Iran.”
“The victory the regime is talking about is a scorched-earth policy that uses Scud missiles and sarin gas,” says a former Syrian officer originally from Khalidiya who defected and actively coordinates with the FSA from a neighboring Arab country.
The attack on the refinery comes as government troops seek to extend their gains in the central Syrian city beyond Alawite strongholds and the demolished Khalidiya district by conducting operations in core neighborhoods, intercepting rebel arms shipments near Qusayr and dismantling FSA roadside bombs discovered on the Khalidiya highway running east from Homs to Palmyra.
An estimated 100,000 people lived in Khalidiya before the war, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, The group estimates that 80 percent of the area is destroyed, with its citizens “now dead, refugees or internally displaced persons.”
Khalid Bin al-Waleed Mosque taken by Assad and Hezbollah forces on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Homsy Camera
The humanitarian situation grows increasingly dire, with the International Committee of the Red Cross last week predicting “tragic” consequences for blockaded civilians stuck inside the city.
“We have been trying for close to 20 days now to bring medical supplies and other aid to the old city of Homs,” said Magne Barth last week, the head of the ICRC’s Syria operations.
“Most families in Homs rely on plants they cultivate in home gardens for their food supply,” says Khudair Khashafa, 27, a Homs-based spokesman for the grassroots organization in the city called the Coalition of Revolution Supporters.
While SANA’s coverage paints a picture of government victories north and west of the city, it also alludes to a sustained rebel effort to move arms from Lebanon and Turkey to continue the battle in Homs.
On Tuesday, the army claimed it had driven back rebels infiltrating from al-Dar al-Kabira and al-Gharbiyeh in northern Homs, and intercepting arms shipments coming from Lebanon near Qusair.
“There are some paths to smuggle weapons into Homs,” said activist Khudair Khashafa. “Most of it is done by local ‘martyrdom mujahadin’.”
Arms smugglers are considered “martyrdom muhajadin” because of the high risk of their mission on difficult roads patrolled by government forces. Pro-regime media regularly publishes the names of “terrorists” killed in arms-running operations.
“The arrival of weapons continues, but sadly there are not enough to defend the city from tanks, fighter jets and missiles,” says the former officer who is in close contact with FSA leaders on the ground. “When we talk about weapons reaching the opposition, we are talking about light weapons, not like those regime possesses.”
The defected officer acknowledged that setbacks in Khalidiya have forced rebels to reevaluate their command structure and to better coordinate their attempts to hold their remaining positions in Homs.
While the Syrian Coalition called the rebels’ withdrawal from the bombarded Khalidiya district a “tactical retreat,” activists say it was simply a matter of being unable to fight the regime’s overwhelming firepower.
“The rebels didn’t retreat tactically; they retreated because they couldn’t defend the city due to their lack of heavy weapons,” the defector said.
“This revolution might lose the battle, but we will not lose the war,” he said, adding that “the work of the resistance continues.”