|Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque (top) under shelling|
|Khalid ibn al-Walid mausoleum (top) and before and after snaps of the mosque courtyard|
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were today using their lethal monopoly on the skies to launch recurring airstrikes against rebel-held districts in the central city of Homs.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition warned this afternoon the regime might resort to chemical weapons, having failed so far to make “any significant progress on the ground” in the battle for Homs, center of the 27-month-old uprising.
Activists said jets and mortars pounded rebel-held areas of the city that have been under siege by Assad's troops for a year, and soldiers fought battles with rebels in several districts.
An activist in Homs told The Associated Press the assault was "the worst campaign against the city since the revolution began" in mid-March 2011.
"Government forces are trying to storm (Homs) from all fronts," another activist told Reuters.
Video footage uploaded by activists on YouTube showed heavy explosions and white clouds of smoke rising from rebel districts.
One clip showed thick black smoke rising from the 13th-century Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, on the edge of the Khalidiya neighborhood.
The mosque is dedicated to Khalid ibn al-Walid, a companion of Prophet Muhammad and a military commander who led the Muslim conquest of Syria in the 7th century following the decisive Battle of Yarmouk, which put an end to Byzantine rule in Syria. His dome-topped mausoleum is located in a corner of the prayer hall.
The regime’s attack on Homs follows military advances by Assad forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, in villages in Homs province and towns close to the Lebanese border.
Three weeks ago Hezbollah spearheaded Assad's recapture of the town of Qusayr on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Last Wednesday the rebels lost Tal Kalakh, a town located within walking distance of the Lebanon border.
Elsewhere in Syria rebels made major advances in the southwestern city of Deraa, just north of the border with Jordan.
They overran a major military checkpoint in Deraa on Friday and hoped it would allow them to capture the city, cradle of their 27-month-old uprising and an arms pipeline for rebels stretching all the way to Damascus.
According to military strategy expert Safwat al-Zayyat, a former major general in the Egyptian armed forces, “the battle for Homs is the regime’s follow-on to the Qusayr battle.”
Zayyat told Aljazeera TV in an interview last night:
The regime’s focus now is to try and regain full control of Homs.
The rebels, on the other hand, have the initiative in Aleppo and in the battles for Idlib and for Deraa.
Assad forces know the airbases they use for resupply from Iran and Russia are liable to be bombarded at anytime.
They thus want to secure an alternative bridgehead for resupply from their allies in Lebanon.
The regime wants to consolidate its control over a corridor of territory into Lebanon that runs from Damascus through Homs to Qusayr and Tal Kalakh.
Lebanon is set to become the regime’s next and sole resupply artery.
By concentrating their firepower on Jurat al-Shiah, Khalidiya, Bab al-Sebaa, Bab Houd and Bab al-Drayb in Homs, Assad forces are unlikely to want to overrun these neighborhoods. They don’t have the foot soldiers to do that. They would want to decimate and cleanse the neighborhoods instead.
As regards the rebels, they are on the verge of a decisive victory in Deraa shortly. Now that they have overrun military checkpoints Nos. 35, 36 and 37, the only neighborhood standing in their way into Deraa city center is al-Manshieh.
By capturing Deraa, opposition forces would be able to rush reinforcements to rebels fighting in Eastern Ghouta and the southern districts of Damascus.
In brief, the rebels now control most of Syria’s north and a sizable part of its south, and the regime is in the saddle in the provinces of Homs and Damascus.