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Buoyed by successes, Syrian regime pushes to retake rebel-held city of Homs

Homs lies along a key highway that connects Damascus with the coastal city of Latakia, a regime stronghold. 

Yazan Homsy/REUTERS
Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Khaldiyeh district in central Homs April 30, 2013.

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Syrian Army troops are advancing on the rebel-held city of Homs, preparing for a push to retake the city that has been dubbed the "beating heart of the revolution" and been in rebel hands for more than a year.

A string of bombings in the past week against regime targets in parts of Damascus previously considered relatively impenetrable belies the fact that regime forces have actually been having a good few weeks, making advances on the ground and watching the opposition press – relatively unsuccessfully – for more outside support.

As the Associated Press notes, President Bashar al-Assad seems confident that the conflict is turning in his favor and has been emboldened by the clear Western reluctance to intervene as Islamist extremist groups rise in prominence within the opposition. Opposition-allied extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra's pledge to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri earlier this month has been a blow to opposition support abroad.

His invigorated regime has gone on the offensive both on the ground and in its portrayal of the conflict as a choice between Assad and the extremists.

Several factors appear to have convinced Assad he can weather the storm: Two years into the uprising against his family's iron rule, his regime remains firmly entrenched in Damascus, the defection rate from the military has dwindled, and key international supporters Russia and China are still solidly on his side.

"I can say, without exaggeration, that the situation in Syria now is better than it was at the beginning of the crisis," Mr. Assad said in a television interview on April 17, according to AP. "With time, people became more aware of the dangers of what was happening.... They started to gain a better understanding of the real Syria we used to live in and realized the value of the safety, security, and harmony, which we used to enjoy."

Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the opposition-allied Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain, acknowledged that regime defections, both military and civilian, are waning and that those who remain are "hardcore regime supporters," AP reports.

The Observatory said in a statement today that the Syrian Army had taken control of much of the Wadi al-Sayeh district in central Homs, according to Agence France-Presse.

The district lies between two rebel-held neighborhoods of the city that have been besieged by government forces for almost a year. Losing Wadi al-Sayeh would mean the loss of the territory linking them, AFP reports.

Homs, Syria's third-largest city, was one of the first to join the uprising against President Assad in 2011. It is located in southern Syria, not far from the Lebanese border, and lies along what The Christian Science Monitor has noted is a highway critical for the regime, because it connects Damascus and the regime stronghold of Latakia on the coast.

Homs district, which includes the city and the surrounding areas, has been the locus of fierce fighting because of this highway. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group allied with Assad, has acknowledged that it is on the ground in Qusayr, a nearby town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights today said Hezbollah fighters are directing the regime forces in the actual city of Homs.

An emboldened Assad made a rare public appearance yesterday, likely in a show of defiance after the past week's attacks on regime targets – an assassination attempt on his prime minister and a bombing at the Interior ministry.

“They want us to be afraid,” Assad said to workers at the electric station he visited, according to The New York Times. “Well, we won’t be afraid.”

As Assad was visiting the station, Damascus was rocked by a fresh set of explosions. The regime blamed the attack on terrorists – the term it frequently uses when referring to the armed opposition – but the opposition rejected the accusation, saying that the attack was carried out by the regime in an attempt to smear the opposition with an attack on civilian areas.

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