Syrian rebels are making a last desperate stand in Homs, as forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad launch their harshest assault yet to expel them from the city once known as the capital of the revolution.
Some among the hundreds of rebels remaining in the city in the centre of the country talk of surrender, according to opposition activists there yesterday.
Others have hit back with suicide car bombings in districts under government control. Some fighters are turning on comrades they suspect want to desert, pushing them into battle.
“We expect Homs to fall,” said one activist. “In the next few days, it could be under the regime’s control.”
The fight for Homs underscores Mr Assad’s determination to rout rebels ahead of presidential elections now set for 3 June.
His forces have almost totally cleared rebels from a broad swath of territory south of Homs between the capital, Damascus, and the Lebanese border, and breaking their supply lines. Rebels have also capitulated in several towns around Damascus after blockades that caused widespread hunger.
Homs, Syria’s third largest city, is a crucial target. About 80 miles north of Damascus, it links the capital with Aleppo in the north – the country’s largest city and another key battleground.
But rebels still control large areas of the countryside in the north and south and have consolidated around the Turkish and Jordanian borders.
“A total loss of Homs would represent a serious loss to the opposition,” said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at think-tank the Brookings Doha Centre. “The military has maintained a steadily significant focus on Homs precisely due to this importance.”
For well over a year, government forces have been besieging rebels in the string of districts they hold in the city centre, around its ancient bazaars.
Just over a week ago, troops loyal to Mr Assad increased their assaults on rebel districts, using tank and mortar fire and bombs dropped from military aircraft.
Video footage posted online showed explosions as projectiles smashed into buildings, sending up columns of white smoke. Angry rebels can be heard on the footage shouting that they have been abandoned and singing that only God could help them.
Activists said it was the fiercest assault since last summer, when Syrian forces retook the rebel-held Homs neighbourhood of Khalidiya.
If Mr Assad’s forces take Homs, it would be a major boost as he prepares for the forthcoming election, fuelling the image his government has sought to promote that he is capable of winning the relentless conflict.
The war is now in its fourth year, with more than 150,000 people killed and a third of Syria’s population driven from their homes. Mr Assad is expected to easily win another seven-year term in the election, which the opposition and the US have declared a farce aimed at giving Mr Assad a veneer of popular support.
Inside Homs, rebels have been weakened by months of blockades around their strongholds and the loss of their supply lines.
Hundreds of fighters surrendered during a series of UN-mediated truces that began in November. An estimated 1,000 fighters left the city, alongside hundreds of civilians as rebel-held areas were evacuated.
The rebels remaining in the city are predominantly from the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and other Islamist factions.
One activist in Homs said rebels wanting to leave had hit morale. He said: “They tempted them with food and drink, and saying, ‘Don’t you want to see your families?’ [It] really did weaken hundreds of them.”