BEIRUT — Syrian government forces seized control of a key neighborhood of Homs on Monday, activists and state media said, delivering a blow to besieged opposition fighters in the city once dubbed “the capital of the revolution.”
Rebels had retreated from about 95 percent of the Khaldiyeh neighborhood by midday Monday after a morning air raid that was followed by bombardment with surface-to-surface missiles and mortar shells, activists said. Syrian state television went further and said government forces had “restored security and stability” to the area.
The fall of the neighborhood, which had been in rebel hands for more than a year, marks a strategic loss for the opposition, slicing in two the remaining rebel-controlled territory in the city. It also builds on a steady string of government gains in central and southern Syria, where the tide seems to have turned in favor of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, bolstered by militants from Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement.
Government troops made inroads into Khaldiyeh over the weekend. They took the 13th-century Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque on Saturday, and its shrine was severely damaged in the fighting.
The operation has taken a devastating toll, leveling large areas of Khaldiyeh. Photographs of government forces moving into the neighborhood showed the level of destruction as soldiers picked their way through battered streets piled with rubble. An aerial image distributed Monday by activists, who said it was taken by a downed surveillance aircraft, showed flattened buildings and deserted streets in Khaldiyeh.
Standing in the wreckage, a reporter for the pro-Assad Iranian television channel al-Alam interviewed soldiers about their advance against rebel fighters. “Our will is strong, and we are determined to chase them to the end of the world,” one said.
The government launched an offensive a month ago to squeeze out pockets of resistance in Homs, after troops seized the nearby border town of Qusair, cutting rebel supply lines to the central city that has been a bastion of opposition to Assad’s rule. In addition to the symbolic significance, controlling Homs would help the government secure a clean sweep of territory from the coastal ports of Latakia and Tartus to the capital, Damascus.
Some clashes continued Monday on Khaldiyeh’s eastern edge, near Qahira Street, but the neighborhood had essentially fallen, said Abu Rami al-Homsi, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Command activist network in Homs.
With access cut from the rebel-held Old City to opposition strongholds in Qusour and Juret al-Shayah, he said, it is only a matter of time before the other neighborhoods fall.
“There have been no reinforcements for us to break this siege; there are no weapons to change the way of the battle,” Homsi said from Qusour, the sound of automatic gunfire crackling in the background. “I think we might resist weeks or maybe a month, but not long. There’s no balance between the two sides.”
Abu Jaafar Safsafa, another Homs-based activist, said the army had taken control of the entire neighborhood by Monday afternoon. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that the majority of Khaldiyeh was in government hands but that sporadic clashes continued Monday.
After inching forward Sunday, the main Western-backed opposition group slammed the army’s “hollow gains,” which it said were made after the area was “pulverized.”
“Such a tactical withdrawal by FSA fighters is not indicative of Assad’s ability to maintain control over the area,” the Syrian Opposition Coalition said in a statement, referring to the rebel Free Syrian Army. “The Assad regime is attempting to lift the low morale of its militias by propagandizing and exaggerating its hollow victory in Homs. However, Assad holds only temporary control, until the FSA are ready to retake the area.”
But on the ground, activists were less optimistic.
“A lot of members of the Free Syrian Army have been wounded now,” Homsi said. “Some of them are martyred; some are handicapped. There is a shortage of fighters and very little ammunition. We are very worried.”
Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.