BEIRUT — Syrian rebels broke through a year-long government blockade in the city of Homs after fierce clashes last week, a symbolic victory for the ragtag force at a time when the conflict has ground to a stalemate in most large cities.
The gains in Homs, the third-largest city in Syria and one of the most contested battlegrounds in the war, came during the same week that marked the second anniversary of a bloody conflict that has left more than 70,000 dead.
“They are trying to make a point to take it back from the regime. The city means something for the revolution,” said the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog group, who uses the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman. “They are trying to say we are still here.”
The city appears to have equal symbolic importance for the government.
The Syrian military retaliated with airstrikes and artillery in a number of neighborhoods in Homs last week, according to activists and rebel fighters. The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that the military had “inflicted heavy losses upon terrorists” in the city.
Since December, the Syrian military has carried out at least three massacres in towns near Homs in an apparent attempt to secure the perimeter of the city, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria noted in a report last week.
Many of the bodies of victims in the attacks around Homs, as well as those in a number of other recent mass killings, have either been burned or dumped in waterways to make identification more difficult, the report said.
“There are no more enclaves of stability in Syria today, and the civilian space is almost completely eroded,” commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva after presenting the U.N. report last Monday, according to the Associated Press.
As clashes between the opposition and the Syrian military escalated in early 2012, Homs, particularly the Baba Amr neighborhood in the southwestern part of the city, was pounded with artillery shells for nearly a month. It was one of the first sustained attacks that the government carried out against civilians.
Hundreds were killed and entire buildings were pulverized in Baba Amr. Many residents fled to safer neighborhoods or the countryside, activists and rebel fighters said.
The siege, according to analysts, represented an attempt to beat the population into submission and send a message to opposition supporters across the country that the government heeded few red lines in its push to keep power.
Despite the onslaught, Homs became the symbolic center of the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Songs uploaded to YouTube praised the strength of the residents, and opposition activists in other locations around the country held demonstrations in support of the besieged city.
By early March last year, the military took control of Baba Amr and a handful of other neighborhoods that had fallen into rebel hands.
“The regime forces surrounded us and made us starve. They blocked all means of life,” said a fighter in Baba Amr who goes by the pseudonym Abu Ahmed Sabouh. “We were humiliated by the Alawite regime. We called on the rebels from outside the area to help us.”
Assad and many of the top leaders in the Syrian government belong to the Alawite religion, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the bulk of the opposition and its supporters are Sunni Muslims.
The current rebel operation to retake Baba Amr had been planned for weeks and involved a number of units attacking from inside the city while others fought their way in from the perimeter, rebel commanders and fighters said. Part of Baba Amr borders farmland, which helped the rebels in the assault, opposition activists said.
“The fighting is different now because we are more experienced and we have confiscated more weapons from the regime,” Sabouh said.
Videos of the fighting uploaded to the Internet this week appeared to show Syrian army tanks firing shells in narrow residential streets, as well as government forces hitting Baba Amr with rockets or artillery shells.
But even if the rebels can hold on to their hard-fought gains in Homs, it will be difficult to return the city to a semblance of what it was before the conflict started. Many neighborhoods have been heavily damaged by the fighting, and water and electricity are sometimes cut off for days, residents say.
Residents rarely travel outside their own neighborhoods, and few venture out after dark, they say.
The sectarian nature of the conflict has also split the population of the city, a mix of Sunnis and Alawites.
“No one lives in the opposite area anymore. Sunnis are living with Sunnis, and Alawites are living with Alawites,” said Sarah, a 23-year-old college student who lives in Homs. “They can get killed or kidnapped for revenge if they were to be seen there,” she added in a Facebook chat.
Many Syrians realize that “even if Assad were to go tomorrow, there’s going to be a very long, hard struggle to stabilize their country and to rebuild their country,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said. “Which is now, I’m afraid, a generational struggle that they will have.”
Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report