Pro-regime supporters hold up flag showing President al-Assad at a rally in Damascus, while opposition leaders warn of a brutal crackdown by the military.
AFP/Getty Images
Pro-regime supporters hold up flag showing President al-Assad at a rally in Damascus, while opposition leaders warn of a brutal crackdown by the military.

Story highlights

The Syrian National Council warns a government operation appears imminent in Homs

At least 46 people died in Syria on Friday, 17 of them in Homs, activists say

The council says the regime is working to stoke sectarian strife

The United States and Britain express concern about Homs

CNN —  

Syria’s leading opposition movement warned Friday of an impending government “massacre” designed to crush activists in the city of Homs, which has emerged as a center of anti-regime unrest.

The Syrian National Council said military troops and vehicles had surrounded the western city and thousands of troops were manning more than 60 checkpoints just inside the city.

“These are all signs of a security crackdown operation that may reach the level of a total invasion of the city,” the council said in a news release. It said that a “massive number of casualties” could occur.

“Evidence received from reports, videos and information obtained by activists on the ground in Homs indicate that the regime is paving the way to commit a massacre in order to extinguish the revolution in Homs and to discipline, by example, other Syrian cities that have joined the revolution,” the council said.

At least 17 people were killed Friday in Homs and at least 29 were killed elsewhere across Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition group. It said women, children and dissident soldiers were among the dead.

The United Nations said last week that more than 4,000 people have died in Syria since a government crackdown against protesters erupted in mid-March. The regime’s actions have outraged world powers and sparked sanctions by the Arab League, Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

The council said the Bashar al-Assad regime is “driving violent sectarian incidents to justify this potential murder.” More than 30 corpses – all thought to be victims of sectarian violence – were found Monday in Homs.

The city of Homs is in a province of the same name. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria says it is the “amalgamation of the national Syria identity combined: urban, country, and Bedouin.”

It says “Muslims in Homs are Sunni, Alawite, Ismaelis and Druze. Christian in Homs are Orthodox and Catholic.” The city also includes Kurds, Armenians and Turkmens, the LCC says.

Sunnis make up the majority of the country and Alawites hold sway in the military and government.

“The regime has tried hard to ignite the sectarian conflict using many dirty methods, which have included bombing and burning mosques, torturing and killing young men, and kidnapping women and children,” the Syrian National Council said in its news release. “The regime also took a significant step today … in burning oil pipelines in the neighborhood of Baba Amr to blame what the regime calls ‘armed gangs’ in an attempt to crush the peaceful uprising on the pretext of a war on terrorism.” A strike on a pipeline was reported on Thursday.

The council likens what the regime may be planning to the 1982 government assault on the city of Hama, an operation that left thousands dead. Syria was led at the time by then-president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.

“We hold accountable the regime, and behind it the Arab League and the international community, (for) what could happen to innocent civilians in the next few hours or days, and the implications for the region as a whole in the near future,” the council said.

The LCC says Homs has been suffering “from a suffocating siege and heavy, continuous security campaigns that are resulting with tens of casualties and wounded every day. This is why it deserves to be declared as a crisis zone.”

The LCC said the regime is trying to foment sectarian feuds. It said the anti-government Free Syrian Army, made up of army defectors, has been standing up to the regime’s army and pro-regime shabiha, whom they call “thugs.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concern about developments Friday.

“It is extremely concerning that in places like Homs we have a huge number of reports that they are preparing something large scale,” she told reporters. “It’s a perfect example for them to prove that they are not the propagators of this violence. And obviously they’ve chosen not to do so. And they are not going to be able to hide who’s responsible if there is a major assault on the weekend.”

She added that U.S. officials hold al-Assad responsible for the violence. “We think he needs to go; that that is how peace is going to come to Syria.”

British minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said his government “is deeply concerned by reports of a build-up of Syrian security forces and armored vehicles in the besieged city of Homs,” also the “scene of disturbing crackdowns in recent months.”

Human Rights Watch last month issued a report detailing “the systematic nature of abuses against civilians in Homs by Syrian government forces.”

The International Crisis Group issued a report on Syria in July, saying “Homs had become a miniature Syria, a microcosm of its numerous problems.”

“Its economic dynamism benefited only a narrow circle of people,” the report said. The swelling number of migrants who lived on the city’s outskirts suffered from declining services and living standards, it said. The security services, predominantly controlled by and staffed with Alawites, earned a particularly bad reputation.

“If the picture appeared reasonably positive to one who visited the center of the city, for most of its underprivileged residents it was appalling,” the report said.