Raids swift, deadly in Syria’s Homs

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Sarah El Deeb, Al­bert Aji, Philip Issa, Jamey Keaten and Do­minique Soguel of The As­so­ci­ated Press and by Louisa Loveluck of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

BEIRUT — In syn­chro­nized at­tacks, in­sur­gents stormed heav­ily guarded se­cu­rity of­fices in Syria’s cen­tral Homs city, clashed with troops and then blew them­selves up, killing a se­nior of­fi­cer and at least 31 oth­ers, state me­dia outlets and of­fi­cials re­ported.

The swift, high-pro­file at­tacks against the mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence and state se­cu­rity of­fices were claimed by an al-Qaida-linked in­sur­gent coali­tion known as the Le­vant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee. A Syr­ian law­maker on a state-af­fil­i­ated TV sta­tion called it a “heavy blow” to Syria’s se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tuses.

The vi­o­lence took place on the third day of the lat­est round of peace talks be­tween Syr­ian govern­ment and op­po­si­tion del­e­gates in Geneva.

Hopes of a break­through are low, and with the news of the talks, rebel forces in north­west­ern Syria de­scended into in­fight­ing.

The U. N. spe­cial en­voy for Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, called the Homs at­tacks “tragic.”

“Ev­ery time we had talks or a ne­go­ti­a­tion, there was al­ways some­one who was try­ing to spoil it. We were ex­pect­ing that,” he said.

Syria’s am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, Bashar al-Ja’afari, who leads Da­m­as­cus’ del­e­ga­tion to Geneva, said the at­tacks were a mes­sage from the “spon­sors of ter­ror­ism” to the peace talks — the first un­der U.N. me­di­a­tion in nearly 10 months. He said the at­tacks will not go unan­swered.

Al-Ja’afari, at the talks, de­manded a firm con­dem­na­tion from all op­po­si­tion groups of the Homs at­tacks, while the op­po­si­tion mem­bers re­torted that they has long de­nounced ter­ror­ism.

No footage or pic­tures emerged from the typ­i­cally tightly se­cured scene of the at­tacks in the city cen­ter. Ac­tivists said the city was on high alert af­ter the at­tacks, with govern­ment troops block­ing roads and forc­ing shops to close.

The govern­ment re­sponded with an airstrike cam­paign against the only neigh­bor­hood on the city’s out­skirts still un­der op­po­si­tion con­trol and other parts of ru­ral Homs.

The govern­ment re­gained con­trol of the city of Homs — one of the first to rise against Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad — in 2015, but al-Waer neigh­bor­hood re­mained in rebel hands. Ne­go­ti­a­tions to evac­u­ate it have fal­tered re­peat­edly. Be­sieged by Syr­ian sol­diers and mili­ti­a­men, al-Waer has gone four months with­out a United Na­tions aid de­liv­ery.

Much of Homs has been dam­aged in the fight­ing that ac­com­pa­nied the es­ca­la­tion of Syria’s mostly peace­ful up­ris­ing into all-out war. By the end of a two-year siege on rebel forces hun­kered down in the Old City, an es­ti­mated 200,000 peo­ple had fled, and more than 70 per­cent of the build­ings were de­stroyed.

The at­tack early Satur­day was the most high- pro­file one in a city that has been the scene of re­peated sui­cide at­tacks since the govern­ment re­gained con­trol. The head of mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence, Maj. Gen Hassan Dae­boul, who was killed in Satur­day’s at­tack, had been trans­ferred from the cap­i­tal to Homs last year to ad­dress se­cu­rity fail­ures in the city, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports at the time.

Dae­boul was killed by one of the sui­cide bombers, ac­cord­ing to Syr­ian Arab News Agency. The dead were de­scribed as “mar­tyrs” in trib­utes on state tele­vi­sion.

Satur­day’s at­tacks were among the most im­pact­ful per­pe­trated against se­cu­rity agen­cies in the 6-year- old con­flict. An­other one oc­curred in July 2012, when in­sur­gents det­o­nated ex­plo­sives in­side a high-level cri­sis meet­ing in Da­m­as­cus, killing four top govern­ment of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing As­sad’s broth­erin-law, who was the de­fense min­is­ter.

De­tails emerg­ing re­veal a co­or­di­nated at­tack Satur­day that used a com­bi­na­tion of armed as­sault and sui­cide bombers to breach the se­cu­rity of­fices.

The gover­nor of Homs prov­ince, Talal Barzani, said three blasts killed more than 32 peo­ple. He said the at­tack­ers were wear­ing sui­cide belts, which they det­o­nated in the se­cu­rity of­fices. The two agen­cies are 1.2 miles apart, and ac­cord­ing to ac­tivists from the city they are heav­ily guarded and mon­i­tored with se­cu­rity cam­eras.

Ac­cord­ing to state-af­fil­i­ated al-Ikhbariya TV, at least six as­sailants at­tacked the two se­cu­rity com­pounds in Homs’ ad­ja­cent al-Ghouta and al-Ma­hata neigh­bor­hoods, clash­ing with se­cu­rity of­fi­cers be­fore at least two of them det­o­nated ex­plo­sive vests. It was not clear if there are any civil­ians among the ca­su­al­ties.

The head of the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, Rami Ab­dur­rah­man, said the syn­chro­nized at­tacks killed at least 42 se­cu­rity of­fi­cers and per­son­nel.

The dif­fer­ing ca­su­alty es­ti­mates could not be im­me­di­ately rec­on­ciled and are not un­com­mon in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of vi­o­lence in Syria.

Ab­dur­rah­man said the at­tacks started with clashes at the check­points. Then, three sui­cide bombers blew them­selves up con­sec­u­tively in­side the court­yard of the mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence build­ing as troops gath­ered. The at­tack briefly un­der­mined the troops’ con­trol of the build­ing, said Ab­dur­rah­man. That at­tack killed at least 30 peo­ple, the Ob­ser­va­tory said.

In the mean­time, a sim­i­lar sce­nario was play­ing out at the state se­cu­rity branch, where at least 12 peo­ple were killed, the Ob­ser­va­tory said. Brig. Ibrahim Dar­wish, head of the agency, was also crit­i­cally wounded, ac­cord­ing to al-Ikhbariya.

The Le­vant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee said five at­tack­ers stormed the two se­cu­rity of­fices. The group said bombs also were det­o­nated at check­points out­side the build­ings just as res­cuers were ar­riv­ing, lead­ing to more ca­su­al­ties, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment on the group’s Tele­gram chan­nel.

A Homs-based op­po­si­tion ac­tivist Be­bars al-Talawy said the at­tack­ers used gun si­lencers in their ini­tial at­tack, en­abling them to en­ter the premises and sur­prise their tar­gets.

“This is the big­gest breach of se­cu­rity agen­cies in Homs,” al-Talawy said, speak­ing in a Skype in­ter­view. “They were al­most in­side the of­fices.”

Al-Talawy said Dae­boul was in charge of ne­go­ti­at­ing sur­ren­der deals with the rebel hold­outs in al-Waer and other rebel-held ar­eas in ru­ral Homs.

The Syr­ian se­cu­rity forces run a vast in­tel­li­gence net­work that holds great power and operates with lit­tle ju­di­cial over­sight. Rights groups and Syria mon­i­tors hold the var­i­ous branches re­spon­si­ble for mass ar­rests, tor­ture, ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings and fir­ing on protesters.

In a re­port this month, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­ported that be­tween 5,000 and 13,000 peo­ple were ex­e­cuted in mass hang­ings in the mil­i­tary’s Sayd­naya prison in Da­m­as­cus be­tween 2011 and 2015. It said the de­tainees were sent to the prison from around the coun­try by the four main se­cu­rity branches, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence.

Af­ter the at­tacks, Syr­ian op­po­si­tion ac­tivists took to so­cial me­dia to re­count sto­ries of tor­ture and abuse for which Dae­boul was al­legedly re­spon­si­ble. Be­fore Homs, he man­aged a mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit be­lieved re­spon­si­ble for some of the worst hu­man-rights abuses.

Mean­while, govern­ment sup­port­ers hailed him as one of the coun­try’s best se­cu­rity of­fi­cers, who “broke the back of the ter­ror­ists,” a pro-govern­ment Face­book page posted. The govern­ment refers to all op­po­si­tion as “ter­ror­ists.”

Sep­a­rately, in an in­ter­view on the side­lines of the Geneva talks, Nasr al-Hariri, head of the ne­go­ti­at­ing team of the main op­po­si­tion del­e­ga­tion, said he hopes to per­suade the new U.S. pres­i­dent that rebels fight­ing to top­ple As­sad share the same pri­or­i­ties with Wash­ing­ton when it comes to fight­ing the Is­lamic State ex­trem­ist group and con­tain­ing Iran.

Al-Hariri also ex­pressed sup­port for the es­tab­lish­ment of safe zones in the war-torn na­tion as the United Na­tions makes a fresh bid to set­tle the con­flict.

“We have a lot of points that we share with this new ad­min­is­tra­tion of Amer­ica,” he said. “On the top of these pri­or­i­ties is fight­ing ter­ror­ism and reach­ing sta­bil­ity in Syria across or through a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion and to face the state of Iran, which in­ter­feres not only in Syria but in Iraq and Ye­men and in other coun­tries.”

One of the mes­sages the op­po­si­tion is try­ing to get across to the new ad­min­is­tra­tion is that the fight­ers of the Free Syr­ian Army, a loose coali­tion of mostly main­stream rebel fac­tions, are a more suitable part­ner in the fight against the Is­lamic State group than forces loyal to As­sad or Kur­dish groups that have re­ceived stronger back­ing from Wash­ing­ton.

“Our fight­ers have suc­ceeded in the al-Bab bat­tle and they will con­tinue to lib­er­ate all ar­eas in the north and in the south,” al-Hariri said, referring to the town in north­ern Syria that Turk­ish-led op­po­si­tion fight­ers and Turk­ish troops seized from the Is­lamic State last week af­ter a pro­tracted and costly bat­tle.

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