Syria's Bashar Assad to strike rural homes

SYRHomesCAIRO Now that they've secured the areas around Damascus, the Syrian government army is on the move again, this time targeting the remaining 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 not been starved into internal displacement deals or surrender yet, but a new bombing campaign by President Bashar al Assad's army is threatening them to accept such a fate.

New airstrikes by the government's air force and it's Russian allies hit the rebel-held town of Rastan, 16 miles north of Homs Wednesday.

“There were four raids, each of them lasting about 10 minutes each 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 six-year long tightening of access by government troops against Rastan’s 70,000 civilians intensified after Assad forces took complete control of Homs, Syria’s third largest city last May.

And more road blocks manned by government troops appeared in rural Homs this week following gains by the Syrian army around Ghouta – the last large rebel outpost in the Damascus suburbs.

“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 militias from Lebanon and Iraq – have used siege and bombardment tactics to force rebels into surrender and population transfer deals with refugees put on busses to opposition territory in northern Syria, mostly in Idlib province to the north of Homs.

Ali Haidar, the Syrian National Reconciliation Minister – the official tasked by Assad to implement the surrender deals – told Reuters Monday that the government would focus on recovering the opposition-held pocket north Homs after securing the areas around Damascus.

“The issue will not be a long time coming after the final resolution in Qalamoun,” Mr. Haidar said, 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.

Rebel commanders around Homs insist they will not be dislodged as easily as the opposition forces around Damascus.

“This region is stronger than Ghouta because of its agricultural crops and livestock,” said Colonel 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.”

Hassoun headed the opposition military delegation to the Astana negotiations – talks held last year brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey — that 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 the preventing the forcible displacement of the population in the Homs countryside,” Mr. 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 were killed.

The dead included 49 children and 34 women shot point blank by shabiha, a paramilitary militia comprised of members from Assad's Alawite sect.

“This is when 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.”

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,” Mr. Kadoor said.

Yet doctors in the area fear they will not be able to handle the kind of chemical weapons attack Assad’s forces hurled April 7 at the town of Douma in the Damascus suburbs.

The World Health Organization said that 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 like Sarin gas.

“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 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.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Washington Times.

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