BEIRUT: Starved of weapons, rebels in Homs can no longer defend the neighborhood alone and will be forced to call on their rivals from the jihadist Nusra Front, senior opposition military sources have told The Daily Star.
Homs, dubbed the “capital of the revolution” for its early and widespread opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad, has been subjected to a monthlong aerial and artillery bombardment as forces loyal to the regime try to root out rebels from their last strongholds.
In a symbolic blow to the opposition, government forces last week took full control of the central neighborhood of Khaldieh, which had been in rebel hands for over a year. That followed the fall of Qusair, southeast of Homs, after government forces backed by Hezbollah overran the city in June.
Opposition fighters and activists admit they now expect the final rebel strongholds, particularly Bab Houd and parts of the Old City, to fall.
A senior official working with the opposition military council who requested anonymity told The Daily Star rebel battalions in Homs were now considering seeking help from rival Islamist brigades, particularly the Nusra Front, operating in Syria’s north.
As one of the first cities to militarize the opposition to Assad, and with strong financial backing and support from Syrian financiers in the Gulf and elsewhere, Homs saw a local and highly organized military opposition force develop early on in the uprising.
Fighters, grouped as part of the Free Syrian Army, are made of battalions that enjoyed a high degree of military success early on in the revolution, most notably the Farouq Brigade. The battalions operating in the city – comprised of mostly Homsis – focused on defending areas from assault by regime forces, leading to significant support from Homs civilians and a high local recruitment rate, according to a local battalion leader from the area.
In “liberated” cities in the north of the country, particularly in Idlib and Aleppo province, opposition fighters enjoyed an influx of weapons across the Turkish border later in the uprising. Most arms, however, according to opposition fighters, activists and diplomats, are being directed to Islamist groups via funding from Qatar and other Gulf donors, also sparking alarm in the West. The influx of foreign jihadist fighters to the region has also helped Islamist brigades gain the upper hand in fighting in the region.
And while Islamist brigades in Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib, including Nusra, Bilad al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and the Al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, have not hidden their territorial ambitions, even clashing with FSA fighters for control in some areas, they have yet to move south to Homs.
“The people of Homs and the FSA groups there were strong enough to defend their territory,” the military council source said.
“In the north, actually the revolution was slow. The armed opposition suddenly entered Aleppo. They had the chance to suddenly get weapons from Turkey, but they didn’t have the support of the local people.”
“In Homs, the people started to arm to defend themselves from the beginning of the revolution. They are strong, well structured and well organized ... and with good experience, so it was difficult for foreigners to come to Homs and build new entities.”
But the latest government onslaught, with its superior airpower and backed by highly trained Hezbollah forces, means that is no longer the case.
Rebel supply routes from the Lebanon border via Qusair and to the north and south of the city have been cut, and while casualty figures cannot be verified, opposition sources suggest they suffered a high toll in Khaldieh.
The fall of Homs would present a severe blow to the opposition and a strategic win for the Assad regime as it tries to carve out a corridor of territory stretching from the capital Damascus to the northern port cities of Tartous and Latakia, and along the Lebanese border.
The Syrian political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, and its recently appointed head, Ahmad Jarba, are lobbying for more weapons and have demanded that a military balance of power be restored in Homs and elsewhere, before there is any agreement on negotiations with the Assad regime.
Nusra and other hard-line groups have not yet established a presence in Homs, despite calls for assistance from other FSA groups by the commander of the Western backed Supreme Military Council, Salim Idriss, during the assault on Qusair on the Lebanese border.
While Nusra was in Qusair in “small numbers,” according to fighters who spoke to The Daily Star, the Farouq Brigade, along with others from Damascus, largely led the defense and eventual evacuation of the town.
The military source claimed senior brigade commanders in the FSA have said they will no longer be able to prevent Nusra from entering Homs “as the only way to restore the balance of power.”
“They will not invite them, but they will not prevent them,” the source said.
“Khaldieh fell and other areas will fall. They only have light weapons to defend them. But Nusra and other groups have more creative tactics,” he said. The Nusra Front advocates the use of suicide bombs and has claimed a number of bombing attacks on military and civilian targets.
The source said the opposition asked the West for advanced and sophisticated technical assistance but were knocked back.
“We wanted technical assistance for creative technical solutions to, for example, blow the regime communications,” the source added. “We got nothing. And the FSA no longer has the means to protect the people.”
Asked how the local population would respond to the newcomers, the official said Nusra members already in the governorate who had taken part in the defense of Qusair were “less extreme.”
“In the beginning the population will welcome them because the population is so depressed. Don’t forget there are also stories and legends and, some of them exaggerated, about the bravery and courage of Nusra.”
“Some people may fear them, but then they fear the shabbiha more,” he said, referring to local loyalist militias.
Syrian Defense Minister Fahd al-Freij visited army troops in Khaldieh Monday, telling soldiers that “liberating Khaldieh is proof of great heroism,” according to state media.
His visit came a day after Assad said the country’s crisis could only be solved by “striking terror with an iron fist.”
The military source said that while it was likely areas would fall under intense pressure from Assad forces, it was impossible for them to be totally eradicated.
Denying a recent report in the Times of London claiming opposition forces had agreed to abandon Homs to focus on other, more winnable battles, the source said: “Many commanders believe it is difficult to hold Homs but the Coalition is still sending money and weapons.”
“We are not sure that we can still protect the Old City, but from a political and leadership perspective, no one would ever dare express that they are willing to give up Homs.”