BEIRUT – The Syrian military opened a second urban front Friday, attacking the rebel stronghold of Homs with the most intense artillery barrage in months and putting opposition fighters there and in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, increasingly on the defensive.
Syria’s civil war has been locked in a bloody stalemate, and embattled President Bashar Assad could extend his hold on power if he retakes Aleppo and Homs. Amateur video from Homs, a symbol of resistance, showed black columns of smoke rising from the city, as loud explosions went off every few seconds.
While Assad stepped up attacks at home, tensions with neighboring Turkey flared again Friday, reviving fears that the 18-month-old conflict in Syria could ignite a regional conflagration.
The crisis began on Wednesday, when a Syrian shell killed five civilians in a Turkish border town and triggered unprecedented artillery strikes by Turkey, coupled with warnings that Turkey would no longer tolerate such acts. On Friday, a Syrian mortar round again hit inside Turkey, causing no injuries, and Turkish troops returned fire, the state-run news agency Anadolu said.
In the past, Turkey did not respond to stray Syrian shells, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested Friday that those days are over. “I once again call on Assad’s regime and its supporters: Do not try to test Turkey’s patience, do not try to test Turkey’s limits,” Erdogan said.
Earlier in the day, Turkey had deployed more troops on its border with Syria.
The U.S sided with Turkey, condemning what White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the “aggressive actions of the Syrians.” Earnest said Turkey’s response was appropriate and that the U.S. stands by Turkey, a NATO ally.
Still, there were signs that both sides are trying to defuse the situation.
Since Wednesday’s deadly shelling, Syria has pulled tanks and other military equipment away from the border, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations. He said the weaponry was moved far enough to remove the “perception of threat.”
Syrian officials could not be reached for comment.
Turkey, along with other countries siding with the rebels, is averse to intervening militarily, while Assad has also tried to avoid provocations he believes would trigger a foreign intervention.
Undeterred by its troubles with Turkey, the Syrian regime on Friday launched a new offensive against Homs, unleashing heavy shelling and air attacks. The attack is the worst Homs has seen in five months, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.
“Around dawn, the regime went crazy and started shelling hysterically,” Homs-based activist Abu Rami told the Associated Press via Skype from rebel-held Old Homs. “An average of five rockets a minute are falling,” he said, asking to be identified by his nickname for fear of reprisal. Most residents who still live in rebel-held areas around the city were hiding in shelters, he said.
Regime forces fired rockets and mortar shells at the rebel-held neighborhoods of Old Homs, Khaldiya, Qusour and Jouret el-Shayah, the activist said, adding that regime forces were also targeting villages around Homs and the rebel-held town of Rastan to the north.
Homs, Syria’s third largest city and a center of the uprising against Assad, was subjected to intense regime shelling in February and March, the first area to suffer widespread devastation. The regime assault slowed in April, as the focus shifted to other areas, including Aleppo, where rebels first seized control of some areas in an offensive in late July.
After weeks of stalemate in Aleppo, rebel fighters announced a new push last week to take the city, but the regime has fought back hard, shelling from tanks and bombing from the air.
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