Raids swift, deadly in Syria’s Homs
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.