Armored forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad thrust deeper into the central city of Homs on Wednesday, firing rockets and mortar rounds to subdue opposition districts, activists said, a day after Russia said Assad wants peace, as protests sweep Sweidaa, home to Syria’s Druze.
Tanks entered the Inshaat neighborhood and moved closer to Bab Amro district, which has been the target of the heaviest barrages by loyalist troops that have killed at least 100 civilians in the last two days, activists said.
“Tanks are now at Qubab mosque and soldiers have entered Hikmeh hospital in Inshaat. They also moved closer to Bab Amro and shelling is being heard on Karm al-Zeitoun and al-Bayada,” activist Mohammad al-Hassan told Reuters by satellite phone from Homs.
“Communications have been cut in many parts of Homs and it is difficult to put together an overall picture. But tanks are in main thoroughfares in the city and appear poised to push deep into residential areas,” he added.
Despite the crackdown, activists reported demonstrations against Assad’s rule throughout the country, including the southern province of Sweidaa, home to a large proportion of Syria’s minority Druze population, another offshoot of Islam that has stayed largely neutral in the uprising.
Syrian activist Rima al-Flaihan told Al Arabiya that the security forces and “Shabbiha” (thugs) were threatening protesters and residents in Sweidaa, located 100 kms to the south of Damascus. Flaihan said that the Syrian revolution is not sectarian, but it is an uprising for the whole Syrian people. She urged the Syrian Druze to defect from the army and not to take any part in the violent crackdown against the peaceful protesters.
Assault on Homs continues
The attacks on Homs continued despite Russia winning a promise from Assad to bring an end to bloodshed, while Western and Arab states acted to further isolate Assad following the onslaught on the city, one of the bloodiest of the 11-month uprising.
Tank and artillery fire rained on Homs, activists said, as the interior ministry vowed to keep up its onslaught against “terrorist groups”.
“There are about four blasts every five minutes,” said Abu Rami, an activist in Homs reached by AFP by telephone from Beirut. “The humanitarian situation is dire. No one can move around.”
An interior ministry statement carried by the SANA news agency pledged that “operations to hunt down terrorist groups will continue until security and order are re-established in all neighborhoods of Homs and its environs.”
More than 6,000 people have died in nearly a year of upheaval in the Middle East country, as Assad’s hardline regime seeks to snuff out a revolt that began with peaceful protests in March 2011 amid the Arab Spring.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, representing a rare ally on a trip to the Syrian capital, said on Tuesday that both countries wanted to revive a monitoring effort by the Arab League, whose plan to resolve Syria’s crisis was vetoed by Moscow and Beijing in the U.N. Security Council.
Lavrov — whose government wields unique leverage as a major arms supplier with longstanding political ties to Damascus, and maintains a naval facility on its coast — told Assad that peace was in Russia’s interests.
But there was no indication from Lavrov’s comments that the issue of Assad eventually giving up power — a central element of the Arab proposal that failed in the U.N. — had been raised.
Assad said he would cooperate with any plan that stabilized Syria, but made clear that only included an earlier Arab League proposal that called for dialogue, release of prisoners and withdrawing the army from protest centers.
Walid al-Bunni, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said Lavrov had brought no new initiative and “so-called reforms” promised by Assad were not enough.
“The crimes that have been committed have left no room for Bashar al-Assad to remain ruler of Syria,” he told Reuters.
Russia’s mediation also failed to slow a rush by countries that had denounced the Russian-Chinese veto to corner Syria diplomatically and cripple Assad with sanctions in hopes of toppling him.
Tank bombardment also was reported on Zabadani, a town of 20,000 people 30 kms (19 miles) northwest of Damascus. The town is nestled in the foothills of mountains separating Syria from Lebanon, where armed resistance to Assad’s rule has been among the fiercest in the country of 21 million.
Two people were killed in the bombardment on Tuesday, bringing the total killed in Zabadani in the past two days to at least 10, activists said. State media said “four specialist force were killed in the Zabadani Plain in Damascus countryside… and the clash resulted in the killing of a number of terrorists.”
An estimated 150 tanks and thousands of troops launched an offensive on Zabadani last week following a withdrawal by Assad’s forces last month as a result of a truce reached by Assad’s brother-in-law and town notables.
Opposition leaders say the bloodshed means it is too late for Assad to offer compromises and it is time to dismantle the 50-year-old police state dominated by members of his Alawite sect that keeps him in power.
“It is impossible for Assad to govern after bombarding his own cities and towns. He is escalating the use of his military might either to sink Syria into chaos or to improve his negotiating position,” opposition leader-in-exile Kamal al-Labwani told Reuters.
“Militarily he cannot win. The bombardment has killed mainly civilians. The fighters in Homs and other cities have been slipping away but they will be back. Assad’s forces can enter Baba Amro or Zabadani, but they cannot stay there long before receiving painful hits,” he added.
Labwani said Moscow will either mediate a transitional military council to replace Assad, similar to the way President Hosni Mubarak gave up power in Egypt, or help Assad set up a coastal enclave for his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
The offensive on Homs and Zabadni followed attacks to regain suburbs of Damascus last week that had fallen under opposition control after months of mass demonstrations against Assad’s rule and repeated military incursions that failed to put them down.
“We’re under occupation. The army has been looting shops and houses and stealing even mattresses. They have cut electricity and telephones for 10 days now, Water and fuel are scarce. Anyone who ventures in the street after 6 p.m. risks being shot on the spot,” said Amer Faqih, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Harasta.
GCC recall envoys from Damascus
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) said its members were recalling their ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian envoys from their own capitals, in response to surging violence.
European Union states followed up their denunciation of the U.N. veto by preparing a new round of sanctions on Syria, EU diplomats said on Tuesday, with the focus on central bank assets and trade in precious metals, gold and diamonds.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, an ex-ally who has turned against Assad, described the U.N. vetoes as “a fiasco for the civilized world” and said Ankara was preparing a new initiative with those who oppose the Syrian government.
In Washington U.S. Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate in the 2008 election won by President Barack Obama, said it was time for Washington to think about arming the rebels.
“We should start considering all options, including arming the opposition. The blood-letting has got to stop,” he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the U.S. was consulting with allies to discuss how to provide humanitarian aid.
“We are exploring the possibility of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians,” he said, admitting that no “mechanisms” currently existed for delivering such aid.
State Department’s Nuland said: “Some of these proposals that people are brooding about could not be done without foreign military intervention — as we have said, we don’t think more arms into Syria is the right answer.”
A day after the United States closed its Damascus embassy, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain joined Britain and Belgium on Tuesday in recalling their ambassadors to Syria for consultations.