Rebel-held north Homs sees heaviest bombardment in weeks ahead of ceasefire negotiations

AMMAN: Scores of airstrikes, artillery shells and barrel bombs struck the northern Homs countryside on Monday, killing civilians and reportedly destroying a field hospital just before local opposition negotiators met with Russian representatives to negotiate a ceasefire.

Since early Monday morning, more than 70 airstrikes, 50 barrel bombs and 500 artillery shells hit residential areas of the opposition-held northern Homs countryside, Abd al-Munim Satif, a spokesman for the local civil defense, told Syria Direct on Monday. The bombings killed at least seven civilians and injured 46 others, the North Homs Civil Defense reported.

Pro-government airstrikes in the town of Rastan “completely destroyed” a field hospital there on Monday, surgeon Mohammad al-Arij told Syria Direct. The bombing occurred during a shift change, he said, and no staff were injured in the attack. Syria Direct could not independently confirm al-Arij’s account.

After reportedly losing the facility, the six doctors and surgeons from the Rastan field hospital gave residents first aid alongside the civil defense and worked out of nearby homes, said al-Arij.

Airstrikes hit the town of Talbiseh in the north Homs countryside on Monday. Photo courtesy of Halab Today TV.

Airstrikes and shelling in north Homs paused early Monday afternoon as opposition representatives met with a Russian delegation to negotiate an end to the violence.

Negotiations concluded at 4pm local time with an initial ceasefire agreement. Talks are scheduled to continue tomorrow, opposition negotiator Amer al-Amer posted on Telegram. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will give the opposition a window of 48-72 hours to accept an offer to leave for rebel-held territories in northern Syria before launching a new military offensive, Syrian state television reported this evening.

Just before Monday’s meeting began, al-Amer told Syria Direct that the opposition delegation sought “guarantees for civilians’ safety, without displacement.”

The north Homs countryside, a collection of cities, towns, villages and rural areas north of the provincial capital has been under the control of rebel factions since 2012, but was gradually encircled by the SAA and allied forces over the following two years. Since then, the area has seen sporadic shelling and airstrikes.

The SAA launched their most recent campaign against the opposition-held enclave in mid-April after reportedly dropping leaflets from government helicopters demanding that local rebels surrender.

For the past two weeks, bombings and ground attacks mostly targeted rebel military points and towns along active frontlines, local media activist Yarub al-Dali told Syria Direct.

“At the start of the campaign, Rastan was bombed intermittently, [but] no one died,” said al-Dali. However, just before negotiations began on Monday, “the shelling reached a fever pitch.”

The negotiations and bombardment in north Homs follow a series of surrender and evacuation deals in and around Damascus. In an interview with Reuters last Tuesday, Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs Ali Haidar indicated that the next priority for Syrian government forces is regaining control over the northern Homs countryside.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.