Syria launches major counter-offensive to take back rebel-held cities

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NICOSIA — The regime of President Bashar Assad has launched a
massive offensive, using tanks and artillery, to roll back the gains of Sunni rebels.

Opposition sources said the Syrian Army and security forces have
conducted major operations in several cities captured or controlled by the
rebels in January. They said the focus of the Army was the Damascus
area as well as Homs and Rastan in central Syria.

A Syrian tank rumbles through the flashpoint city of Homs in a video grab from December 2011. /AFP

“This a well-organized offensive that involves artillery and armor,” an opposition source said.

More than 35 people were said to have been killed in the Army operation in the Homs province on Jan. 28. Homs has been regarded as a stronghold of the rebel movement, particularly the Free Syrian Army, which claims a membership of more than 20,000 deserters from the Syrian Army.

FSA, based in Turkey, said the Assad regime intends to recapture the towns lost to the rebels over the last month. FSA deputy commander Col. Malik Kurdi cited the Damascus suburb of Duma, the Syrian border town of Zabadani as well as the port cities of Banias and Latakia.

On Jan. 27, the Syrian Army deployed T-72 main battle tanks and BMP-3
infantry fighting vehicles in an assault on Duma. FSA said 100 Syrian troops
deserted during the fierce battle.

The Arab League has confirmed the Assad offensive. On Jan. 28, the
league said it was suspending its mission by nearly 200 monitors because of
army and security force attacks on three Damascus suburbs held by rebels.
The suburbs were identified as Jisrin, Kafr Batna and Saqba.

“Given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the
continued use of violence, it has been decided to immediately stop the work
of the Arab League’s mission to Syria pending presentation of the issue to
the league’s council,” Arab League secretary-general Nabil El Araby said.

For his part, Kurdi said the Assad regime was also trying to undermine
FSA through psychological warfare. He said Damascus was sending village
leaders to negotiate a ceasefire with FSA.

“This is just the policy of deceit that the regime has always relied
upon,” Kurdi said.

FSA said it was targeting the pro-Assad Shabiha militia, deemed the
bloodiest regime force. Human rights groups said Shabiha was used by the
regime to kill Sunni civilians, including many who did not participate in

“We acknowledge that we are targeting the pro-regime Shabiha militia and
members of the army who carry out attacks on unarmed demonstrators,” Kurdi

FSA also reported the capture of seven Iranians, five of them identified
as members of the Islamic Republic Guard Corps. The officers were said to
have participated in a reconnaissance mission of Homs in late January.

“They were armed with automatic weapons and sniper rifles,” Kurdi said.

The FSA said the abduction of the IRGC officers sparked heavy rocket
fire on the Bab Al Seba neighborhood of Homs. Kurdi said the Iranians were
smuggled out of the Sunni city in an effort to avoid retaliation by the
Assad regime.

In a video released by FSA on Jan. 27, one of the Iranians said he was
an IRGC officer assigned to quell the Sunni revolt. The Iranian, who spoke
in Farsi, appealed to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei for the officer’s

“I am Sajad Amirian, a member of IRGC of the Iranian armed forces,” the
Iranian said. “I am a member of the team in charge of cracking down on
protesters in Syria, and we received our orders directly from the security
division of the Syrian Air Force in Homs.”

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