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Syria seals off rebellious neighborhoods

Baba Amr in Homs, once an opposition stronghold, is now isolated by a 10-foot high concrete wall.

href="http://observers.france24.com/content/20111122-syria-homs-sees-mysterious-trenches-dirt-mounds-appear-unrest-protests">first emerged last November. A video journalist working with GlobalPost witnessed the trench during a visit to Homs this February. The purpose of the trench remains unclear, but it appears to be a another military tactic to hinder access to rebellious neighborhoods.

In Daraa, the first city to rise up against the regime and suffer a sustained military assault, GlobalPost recently witnessed a labyrinth of checkpoints and deployment of tanks, troops and snipers, effectively sealing off the population from surrounding areas and the capital.

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The regime blames “armed terrorist groups” for the breakdown in the ceasefire agreement. Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud told state-run Syrian Arab News Agency last week that the “terrorists” had committed more than 1,300 violations.

Russia last week echoed a similar line. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich accused the opposition of shifting “to tactics of terror on a regional scale,” claiming Western governments were arming the rebel fighters.

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Rather, it appears post-revolutionary Libya, which strongly supports Syria’s opposition, has made the first serious effort to arm the rebels. On Saturday Lebanese authorities announced they had discovered guns and rocket propelled grenades aboard a ship attempting to dock in north Lebanon’s Tripoli, a Sunni-majority city also widely supportive of Syria’s opposition.

Omar, the young rebel fighter from Homs, said the FSA was now restructuring after suffering a strategic defeat in Baba Amr.

“We will adopt guerilla tactics,” he said. “We are fighting in small groups and moving from one district to another so we don’t let the regime block this district and kill us. The FSA leaders made a big mistake when they tried to hold Baba Amr.”

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As the rebels seek new strategies for their armed struggle, the Assad regime has made its contempt of the international diplomatic effort clear. Assad himself revealed his scorn for last December’s Arab League monitoring mission in an email, first obtained and verified by the Guardian.

Writing to Hadeel Ali, his young media consultant, the president forwarded a YouTube video ridiculing the mission’s inability to spot hidden Syrian tanks, to which she responded, “Hahahahahahaha, OMG!!!”

That same contempt appeared to be on display more recently as Kofi Annan, the Arab League envoy, briefed the Security Council on a letter received from Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Mualem on April 21. The letter stated that the government had now withdrawn all heavy armor and troops from population centers, the first step in Annan’s cease-fire plan.

But daily videos of smoke billowing above Homs and troops opening fire in urban protest centers have told a very different story.

Syrian officials see Annan’s plan as “a license for the regime to do more of the same,” the respected International Crisis Group, one of the only international think tanks able to still interview Syrian officials, wrote in its April 10 report.

“As the regime sees it, Annan’s mission, far from presenting a threat, can be a way to drag the process on and shift the focus from regime change to regime concessions,” ICG reported, “granting humanitarian access, agreeing to a ceasefire and beginning a vaguely defined political dialogue, all of which can be endlessly negotiated and renegotiated.”

As that process unfolds, the wall in Baba Amr stands as a physical symbol of the deep-seeded sectarian hatred that a year of relentless violence in Syria has engendered in former neighbors.

“The Sunni districts are hosting terrorists and armed gangs so the government should close them off by all means. If this needs a high wall, why not?” Haidar, a 35-year-old Allawite from Homs’ Zahara neighborhood, told GlobalPost.

A member of the Popular Committees, the official name for armed civilian militias fighting for the regime, Haidar said the possible collapse of the regime would mean no future for three million Allawites in Syria’s big cities. “We would return to our villages in the mountains,” he said.

“We have been occupying senior positions in the army, security agencies and government in Syria for four decades and we will keep the power in our hands, whatever this costs us.”

A GlobalPost journalist whose name has been withheld for security reasons, reported this story from Baba Amr, Syria. Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand contributed reporting and wrote the story from Beirut, Lebanon.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/120430/syria-baba-amr-homs-wall-assad-russia-un-arab-league