Syrian Regime Takes Control of Country's Largest Province



The Syrian government took control of the country’s largest province, state media said Wednesday, as the Assad regime moves ahead with a Russia and Iran-backed campaign to capture remaining territory from rebels after more than seven years of conflict.

Rebel fighters and thousands of civilians are leaving the last opposition-held enclave in central Homs province this week under evacuation deals, after years of government siege and a recent military assault that forced their surrender.

The Homs province and its eponymous capital played an important role in the uprising against President

Bashar al-Assad

as its neighborhoods and towns were some of the first in the country to break free of government control. The Assad regime is increasingly consolidating control over large parts of the country, further throwing into doubt the likelihood of a negotiated peace settlement.

The Assad government in early April completely captured Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus, after nearly two months of a Russia-backed assault that included a suspected chemical-weapons attack. Since then, it has accelerated its push to seize small, isolated pockets under rebel control through the same strategy: siege and bombardment.

Limited U.S., French and British missile strikes on Syrian-government targets in response to the chemical attack haven’t slowed the regime’s drive to seize territory.

Although ostensibly protected under an internationally backed agreement brokered last year by Turkey, Russia and Iran, the Homs enclave came under air attacks by regime warplanes following the government’s capture of Ghouta.

More than 30,000 people already have left the opposition Homs enclave, according to the United Nations. Others wanting to leave have been slowed by a shortage of buses.

“There are not enough buses today,” said Osama, an activist in al-Houla, one of the towns in the rebel enclave. “There are about 4,000 waiting for the buses and even more people are expected to leave when the evacuations resume.”

The town of Houla was the site of a mass killing in May 2012 in which more than 100 civilians, including women and children, were summarily executed by government forces, according to a United Nations investigation. The massacre marked the Assad regime’s deepening international isolation.

The Syrian army said Wednesday that taking control of the 65 towns, villages as well as two dams would restore security and stability to Homs and neighboring provinces, according to state media.

More than 120,000 people have been displaced from various parts of Syria as a result of the recent surrender agreements, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Those who have been displaced have been bused to one of the last opposition strongholds, an area in northwest Syria which includes Idlib and northern Aleppo provinces.

The U.N. estimates 2.2 million people are in Idlib province alone, two-thirds of them having been displaced from their homes elsewhere in Syria.

Jan Egeland, head of the U.N. task force for humanitarian aid to Syria, has called it “the biggest refugee camp on earth.”

And those being displaced aren’t necessarily finding safety.

On Wednesday the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that chlorine gas was likely used as a chemical weapon in February on the town of Saraqib, in Idlib province. It didn’t issue blame for the attack, which injured a number of people.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com



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