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Bashar Assad’s forces chip away at Syria rebels’ control of Homs

Syrian government forces made significant progress Monday in recapturing Homs from the rebel forces that have held the country’s third largest city for more than a year, according to rebel commanders and military officials in neighboring Lebanon.

In its ninth day, the siege began by pounding the rebel-controlled Old City and Khaldiyeh neighborhoods with airstrikes and artillery before ground units began to advance slowly into the dense urban maze where rebels have been preparing defenses for months.

“The vicious campaign has been going on for nine days and the regime has entered into parts of Khaldiyeh, but the aim is to take over all of Homs,” said Abu Rami, a rebel activist with close ties to the rebel factions under siege.

Attempts to contact Syrian officials about the offensive either failed or were ignored.

Homs has been a symbolic and strategic asset to both sides since it became one of the first major cities in Syria to have several neighborhoods wrested from regime control. It lies at a crucial crossroads between the capital, Damascus, and the coast, home to Syria’s ports and ethnic villages that are home to supporters of the regime of President Bashar Assad. The city’s proximity to Lebanon has helped drag Syria’s neighbor into the two-and-half-year civil war, which has claimed at least 100,000 lives.

The operation to remove Homs from rebel control comes after the regime, backed by thousands of Hezbollah Islamist fighters from Lebanon, seized the neighboring town of Qusayr in a bloody bout of urban warfare. It produced numerous casualties on both sides before the regime established control and the rebels withdrew.

Hezbollah hasn’t been as involved in the fighting in Homs, returning to limiting its assistance to military specialists, including communication technicians, snipers and elite special forces troops, according to a commander for the Shiite militant group whose unit fought in Qusayr.

“Hezbollah is not in Homs like we were in Qusayr,” he told McClatchy. “Because Qusayr is along the Lebanese border and has many Shiite villages nearby, we took this as a mission that we could do. But the Syrian army doesn’t need Hezbollah to fight in large numbers on the ground in most battles.”

Hezbollah lost more than 100 members from its well-trained cadre of professional fighters in that battle. But the casualties didn’t factor into the decision to remain aloof from the fight in Homs, according to the Shiite commander, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because, he said, he didn’t have permission from the secretive group to talk to the news media.

“If the Syrian army needed us, we would be fighting, but they don’t,” he said, before explaining that a few elite units were involved and had taken light casualties. “And we still have to be prepared for Israel.”

According to a recent statement by the United Nations, as many as 4,000 civilians remain trapped in several key rebel-held areas. They’ve been under withering artillery and air attack for nearly two weeks.

“I speak with them every day if I can,” said Abu Musab, who fled Homs for Lebanon earlier this summer. “There are rocket attacks, Scud missiles, jet fighters, tanks, all trying to end the ‘capital of the rebellion’ by destroying what is left of the city.”

“The plan was to take Qusayr and cut off rebels inside Lebanon from the transportation route between Damascus and the coast,” said a Lebanese military intelligence official who’s sympathetic to the regime and stays in close contact with his Syrian counterparts. He asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists. “After they take care of Homs, they will concentrate their forces on Damascus first and then maybe Aleppo after Ramadan.”

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, begins Wednesday.

The incoming head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, an umbrella group of exiled political figures who’ve been trying unsuccessfully to wrangle control of the rebels’ widely disorganized command structure, offered the regime a cease-fire in Homs for the holy month. But it’s doubtful the regime would accept the terms and even less likely that the coalition could persuade many rebel groups in Syria to obey the truce.