Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is determined to crush the rebellion in the city of Homs to avoid it becoming another Misrata -- the rebel Libyan town whose fighters captured dictator Muammar Qaddafi, analysts said.
“The fall of Misrata heralded Qaddafi’s fall in Sirte”, the hometown of the former Libyan strongman, said analyst Karim Bitar.
“If the Syrian regime fails to quell the revolt in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo could start to tremble,” said Bitar, director of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
Qaddafi was captured by Misrata rebels and slain in hazy circumstances on October 20 as he was trying to flee Sirte.
Like Homs, Misrata was a merchant city and one of the worst battered by Qaddafi’s forces in the nine-month conflict that led to the demise of the strongman and the end of his 42-year autocratic rule.
The success of the rebellion in Misrata proved to be a turning point in the Libya conflict but, unlike Homs, the Libyan fighters had NATO support and played a paramount role in liberating Tripoli as well.
Anti-regime demonstrations have intensified in recent days in the Syrian capital and the second city Aleppo, which has mostly been spared the violence that gripped other parts of the country since protests erupted in March.
Regime forces have been shelling Homs for nearly four weeks, with rebel neighborhoods like Baba Amr taking the brunt of the pounding.
But they have yet to break the resistance of poorly equipped but staunch army deserters who are holed in Homs, dubbed the “capital of freedom.”
“The regime believes that if it controls Homs, it would bring the revolution to an end,” the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), Colonel Riyadh al-Assad, told AFP.
“But it has met a fierce resistance so far.”
For weeks, anti-regime activists have voiced fears of an imminent attack on Baba Amr.
Reinforcements from the dreaded Fourth Armored Division were deployed on Tuesday close to the rebel neighborhood, according to activists.
And a security source in Damascus told AFP on Wednesday that ground forces had moved into the rebel neighborhood overnight and were combing the area in search of rebel fighters.
“The area is under control. The army has started combing the area building by building and house by house. Now the troops are searching every basement and tunnel for arms and terrorists,” the source said, requesting anonymity.
“There remain only few pockets” of resistance, the source added.
But activists and monitors said rebel troops were still fighting the regular army outside Baba Amr.
And analysts say the army is reluctant to engage in urban warfare.
“The Syrian army knows that entering the neighborhood means it will be shot at from all sides and that it will have to take it house by house,” said Fabrice Balanche, director of Lyon-based Gremmo research center.
Thirty years ago, the “symbol” of the uprising against the autocratic Syrian regime was the nearby city of Hama, where regime forces killed thousands in 1982 to crush a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion, Balanche said.
“Today, it is Baba Amr.”
Forces loyal to the regime of President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, bombarded Hama over four weeks, killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people, according to various estimates.
“The regime will go all the way, but since it cannot afford to kill (thousands) as it did in Hama, it is pounding the neighborhood to empty it and terrorize civilians,” Balanche said.
“When only rebels are left, it will be able to raze Baba Amr,” he added.
Balanche estimated that two thirds of Baba Amr’s 40,000 residents have already fled the battered neighborhood.
Homs -- Syria’s third-largest city and an economic hub -- is strategically located and home to major oil refineries and gas pipelines.
It is on a key trade route for merchandise transiting from Turkey to the Gulf states and links Damascus to the north of the country. The province of Homs shares borders with Lebanon.
“The country would be cut in two if the opposition seizes control of Homs. That’s why the regime is relentlessly hounding Homs,” said Agnes Levallois, a Paris-based Middle East specialist.
“By regaining control of Homs the regime would hinder the movement of the FSA,” she said, as the rebel army gets much of its weapons from across the border in Lebanon.
Most of the inhabitants of Homs are Sunni Muslims who back the uprising against Assad’s Alawite-led regime. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam who represent about 12 percent of the 22 million population of Syria.