Fierce clashes between Syrian troops and rebels erupted for the first time in the coastal town of Baida Thursday, activists said, during the latest stage of a government offensive to dislodge rebel forces along a strategic corridor linking the coast to the capital.
The opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the final toll was expected to exceed 100 dead and included many women and children. Many of those killed appeared to be executed by gunfire or knives, it said, and others were found burned.
Earlier in the day, opposition activists and fighters told The Daily Star Assad’s forces had surrounded and overrun the Sunni towns of Baida and Maqreb on the road to Alawite-majority coastal city of Banias.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said troops killed “terrorists” – the regime term for rebels – and seized arms in an operation targeting insurgents.
The offensive coincided with the recapture of a strategic central rebel-held neighborhood in Homs city. It appears to be part of a campaign to secure the Homs province and highways linking President Bashar Assad’s Damascus powerbase to the Lebanon border and north to the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia, home to the majority of Assad’s own Alawite sect.
The Syrian army backed by loyalist forces entered Wadi al-Sayeh Thursday after five days of fighting, driving a wedge between the rebel-held neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh and the Homs Old City, opposition activists and fighters told The Daily Star.
“It’s a very important win for them as they have now split the rebel-held area. They have cut the rebels access and interrupted their flow of weapons,” opposition activist Abu Rami, from the Syrian Revolution General Command, told The Daily Star via Skype from a besieged neighborhood inside the city.
He said the army entered the neighborhood after a sustained campaign using mortar shells, and TNT barrel bombs dropped from military aircraft.
“The rebels were forced to withdraw. They may have to evacuate the area, but frankly, there is no way and nowhere to evacuate these families to,” he said.
They also seized the town of Qaysa on the eastern edge of Damascus, part of a steady move north from airport on the city’s southeastern edge which would create a line of control locking down the eastern approaches to the city and close off rebel weapons supplies from the Jordanian border.
“The regime has nothing to lose now. They will do whatever it takes to secure this line,” Abu Rami said, adding, however, that the rebels, though outnumbered and outgunned in Homs, “would remain steadfast in their resistance.”
The retaking of Wadi al-Sayeh by dividing rebel lines appears to indicate a shift in tactics by the regime forces. The Observatory said the operation to recapture the neighborhood was coordinated by forces from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Fighting around Qusair, close to the Lebanon border in Homs Province, has intensified in recent weeks, with opposition fighters claiming Assad forces were backed by Hezbollah fighters.
Iran and Hezbollah have denied sending forces to fight alongside Assad’s troops, but Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has been increasingly open about the group’s presence in Syria, where he says it is defending Lebanese Shiite communities from attack by Sunni rebels.
On a visit to Homs in March, Syrian army generals told The Daily Star a new group of elite fighters, trained in guerrilla warfare, was ready to be deployed, marking a shift away from more indiscriminate tactics used over the course of the 2-year-old conflict.
The generals would not be drawn on who was training the elite unit.
Military analysts say efforts to secure the strategic corridor from Homs appeared to have been bolstered by additional forces. “The battle in Homs can’t be read as separate from the battle in Qusair,” Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said via telephone from Washington.
“It looks like what we are seeing is a more effective tactical approach. They seem to be integrating the various militia, Hezbollah forces, popular defense committees and utilizing the air force more effectively.”
White said that while there was no evidence of large troop deployments or reinforcements, the Syrian air force was now flying about twice as much as it had been previously.
“Spring is a good time for an offensive, the weather is good. They may have rested their forces over winter … and they have Hezbollah directly involved, giving them effective fighters,” White said, adding that civilian militia, known as the National Defense Committees, were increasingly being integrated into regular forces.
White cautioned, however, against predicting an outright military victory in Homs, an early center of resistance to Assad’s rule.
“They may have learned by now that while Homs is easy to take, it’s not so easy to keep,” he said.
The uptick in violence comes as the U.S and its regional allies consider methods to arm rebel groups as pressure builds for a U.S. response to Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons in its civil war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday the United States was rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels, but stressed that no decision by U.S. President Barack Obama had been made.
U.S. military commanders have voiced concerns that weapons could fall into the hands of anti-American Islamic extremists and that arming opposition groups might do little to end the conflict.
“These are options that must be considered with partners, with the international community: what is possible, what can help accomplish [our] objectives,” he added.
Still, Hagel’s public admission at a Pentagon news conference, standing alongside his British counterpart, was the clearest signal yet that Obama was moving toward some action after citing preliminary U.S. intelligence that Assad’s forces likely used chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas.
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond noted that his government was constrained by a European Union ban on supplying armaments to the rebels.
“Both of our nations will only do what we legally can do,” Hammond said, adding his government would “look at the situation when that ban expires in a few weeks’ time.”