The Syrian government, unable to quell an armed rebellion despite overwhelming firepower, issued new travel restrictions Monday for military-aged males as fighting continued across the country, especially in Homs, Syria's third-largest city.
Under the new restrictions, reported by local Syrian news outlets, all males between 18 and 42 were banned from traveling outside the country, a move that appeared to be aimed at making it easier to draft more men into the military.
Syrian refugees in Jordan last week said they had fled because they feared being drafted, despite having already completed their compulsory military service, and that in recent weeks the Syrian government had made it increasingly hard to leave the country.
The announcement of the travel ban came as it was becoming increasingly clear that the withdrawal more than three weeks ago of Free Syrian Army rebels from the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs had not stopped fighting in that city.
Opposition activists said Syrian government forces have resumed regular shelling of a number of the city's neighborhoods as it attempts to crush the FSA, a loose network of Syrian army defectors and volunteers who've taken up arms against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Meanwhile, the Syrian military apparently thwarted a rebel effort to blow up a key bridge between Damascus and the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the current anti-Assad revolt. Destruction of the bridge would have made it difficult for the Syrian government to dispatch tanks to Daraa and would have dealt an economic blow to the government by cutting the main trade route to Jordan.
The military also dealt a serious blow to a major rebel smuggling route along the Lebanese border with the arrest of a key operative who'd been instrumental in smuggling foreign journalists in and out of Syria from Lebanon as well as helping hundreds of wounded Syrians flee the country for medical care.
Activists say dozens have been killed and hundreds more displaced in the past four days in Homs due to shelling and sniper fire.
"The old city of Homs has been under shelling for 18 days," said Saif Hurria, an anti-government activist who spoke via Skype using a pseudonym. He said government forces were preventing civilians from leaving the area. It was not clear how many armed FSA rebels were in the city.
A representative of the International Committee for the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Damascus said aid groups had been unable to reach besieged portions of the city. He said the ICRC was still seeking a daily ceasefire to provide assistance.
"Any neighborhood where there is fighting, we can't go there because of security and safety reasons," the spokesman, Saleh Dabbakeh, said. "That is why the ICRC continues to discuss operational steps to implement the two-hour daily humanitarian pause that we have requested. We have received initial agreements from all sides in the fighting."
Dabbakeh said the situation had improved for the movement of aid in some areas, however.
"We have much better access than ever before, not only to Homs but to other areas," Dabbakeh said. "It's easier to get authorization from the authorities than before."
But he said conditions have continued deteriorating for many civilians as the conflict enters its second year.
"The needs are greater than ever before," he said. "That includes people who have been unemployed for some time and people who have been displaced from their homes, and also people who have been affected by economic sanctions.
"The majority of the people have absolutely nothing to do with the fighting," he added. "What do they do?"
Rising death toll
The fighting in Syria, which pits the lightly armed rebels against the Russian- and Iranian-supplied Syrian military has taken a heavy toll on civilians. The United Nations says more than 8,000 have been killed since demonstrations against al-Assad began last March. Anti-government activists put the number at more than 10,000.
Anti-government activists posted video during the weekend of shelling and rocket attacks by government forces, as well as a field hospital they said was full of those wounded by the government forces' shelling.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last week called for nations to donate enough aid to meet the basic needs of up to 100,000 Syrians who might potentially flee to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Tens of thousands have already fled, and many already are dependent on non-governmental aid provided by local groups in neighboring countries.
The UNHCR call did not include the aid necessary to meet the needs of an estimated quarter million Syrians displaced inside the country.
The official Syrian news agency SANA on Monday reported that the army had intercepted rebels who were planning to destroy a bridge linking the southern city of Daraa to the capital, Damascus. Destruction of the bridge would have cut the road between the two cities, and would have exacerbated the decline of Syria's already faltering economy; the road is a major overland trade route to Jordan.
"Syria is the path to eastern Europe, to Turkey," said Jamil Nimri, a member of parliament in Jordan, Syria's neighbor to the south.
So far, Jordan has walked a fine line, refusing to support the rebels openly while giving shelter to tens of thousands of refugees. On Monday, the government announced it had arrested 10 Syrians believed to be spying for the Syrian government here.
Nimri, from the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, just across the border from Daraa, said that further damage to overland trade would likely lead to greater Jordanian government support for a rebellion that he believes is continuing to gather momentum. If Saudi Arabia were to arm the rebels, as it has said it would like to do, Jordan is the most likely route.
"The commercial exchange is huge. If we boycott Syria, we boycott ourselves," Nimri said. "But in the coming days, if the damage is done to the Jordanian economy anyway, we will be becoming more supportive."
Meanwhile, the global advocacy group Avaaz announced that Jassim Abu Diab had been seized in an ambush by the Syrian military. Diab had been instrumental in smuggling foreign journalists in and out of Syria from Lebanon, including two journalists who were killed last month during the shelling of Homs.
Avaaz, which has been instrumental in gathering video of the conflict, said Diab had been captured near the Syrian city of Qusayr as he and others were trying to smuggle a wounded Syrian to Lebanon for medical care.
Others in the group managed to make it to Lebanon with the wounded person, Avaaz said, but Diab was taken prisoner.