Syria’s beleaguered opposition forces suffered another blow Monday when government troops captured a key district in the embattled city of Homs that has been a rebel stronghold since the beginning of the country’s uprising.
The capture of Khaldiyeh is a setback for the rebels in the strategic central heartland, bringing President Bashar Assad’s regime closer to its goal of capturing all of Homs, Syria’s third largest city — including neighborhoods in its Old City that the rebels have held for more than a year.
The opposition acknowledged the loss of Khaldiyeh, though some activists said there were still scattered clashes in northern sectors of the district where rebels were still putting up a fight. A senior member of the Western-backed Syria National Coalition said the regime’s gains in Homs are not irreversible.
“It will be difficult, but not impossible to gain back what we’ve lost in Homs,” Hadi Bahra, a member of the Coalition’s political committee, told The Associated Press from Saudi Arabia.
Syrian media aired live video from the neighborhood, showing troops roaming deserted streets and waving flags in front of shell-scarred buildings.
State news agency SANA quoted an unnamed army commander saying the fall of Khaldiyeh would significantly boost army operations aimed at dislodging rebels from central areas of Homs. Khaldiyeh is important because it links other rebel-held districts in the heart of the city through a network of tunnels the rebel dug to ferry weapons and other supplies, the commander said.
The U.S. State Department played down the significance Monday.
“While it is true that regime forces backed by Hizbullah and Iran may have made some gains on the ground and taken control of some areas within Homs and the surrounding area, it remains to be seen whether it can hold them,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
A month ago, the government launched a sweeping offensive to retake rebel-held areas of Homs. Its capture would be the second major setback to rebels in central Syria in as many months.
In early June, regime forces captured the strategic town of Qusair in Homs province near the border with Lebanon. Troops have also captured Talkalakh, another border town in the province.
The province of Homs is Syria’s largest, running from the Lebanese frontier in the west all the way to the border with Iraq and Jordan in the east. The city of Homs serves as a crossroads between the main highway from Damascus and the road to the coastal region, a stronghold of Assad’s Alawite sect.