AMMAN (Reuters) - A week of Russian air strikes on Syria has left residents of the rebel-held town of Talbiseh, a strategic enclave of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, braced for a wider ground assault.
Hundreds of families have fled after days of bombardment on Talbiseh and neighboring towns and villages under rebel control. People avoid big gatherings, including public prayer in mosques, schools are closed and streets are quiet.
When Russian warplanes approach, sirens send the few people who venture out scurrying home. “People have become very cautious ... especially as the Russian planes come suddenly,” said Abdul Salam al-Taher, a member of a rebel local council which has been running the town for the last three years.
A long way from the Islamic State strongholds of northern and eastern Syria, Talbiseh has been targeted by Russian air strikes despite Moscow’s insistence that its military intervention is focused on the hardline Islamist militant group.
The reason, residents say, is their strategic location just north of the city of Homs. It is territory that Assad must regain to secure his power over Syria’s main population centers in the west of the country, even if that strategy means abandoning swathes of desert and farmland further east.
Talbiseh, Rastan and surrounding Sunni Muslim villages lie in a pocket of land close to Syria’s north-south highway - which links most of its main cities - and the Mediterranean provinces which are the homeland of Assad’s Alawite minority.
“The aim is to force us to capitulate so that Assad sets up his partition plan,” Taher told Reuters by telephone.
Around 300,000 people live in the enclave. To the south, army barracks lie between them and the city of Homs, once a bastion of rebel forces. Now only one district of Homs - al-Wa‘ar neighborhood - remains outside Assad’s control.
Leaflets dropped by Syrian planes in the last week, promising people safe passage through army checkpoints, have reinforced a sense that the army is preparing a fresh drive to crush the rebels.
The leaflets say that fighters who give themselves up will be well treated and allowed to return to their families. Syrian authorities said last week 700 former rebels in the southern province of Deraa had gone through the same process.
Further north in the provinces of Hama and Idlib, Syrian troops and allied militia forces - backed by Russian air strikes - launched offensives against rebel positions on Wednesday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which tracks the conflict via a network of sources within the country.
Rebel fighters in Talbiseh anticipate a similar assault.
“Our men are hearing rumors that they are amassing troops,” said Zaid Barbour, a field commander in the Liwa Tawheed rebel group. “The Russian reconnaissance planes are constantly hovering in the air.”
Residents say the Russian air strikes have been more powerful than anything they have seen in four years of conflict.
“There were 10 bombs dropped all at once, in the center of Talbiseh ... The explosion was incredibly huge,” said Hassan Abou Nouh, describing what he saw when he arrived at one of the bombing sites.
“Smoke and destruction can be seen everywhere around you, rescue teams, ambulances, people under the rubble of their demolished houses,” he said. By Tuesday, 18 civilians had been killed in Talbiseh, he added.
Although some people have fled, most are staying put, “partly because the whole area is besieged,” said Nouh, an opposition activist.
Alongside the Russian air strikes around Talbiseh, Syrian army and allied militia forces have also bombarded the area this week. On Tuesday night, they hit both Talbiseh and Wa‘ar, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Regaining control of towns in the rural areas north of Homs would seal the government’s control over the city itself, a local rebel fighter said.
“Our region is very important for the regime,” Abu Baraa al-Homsi from the Homs Corp said. “The battle for the rural north is (the battle) for Homs, which is the barometer of the revolution.”
Faced with the additional firepower of Russia’s air campaign, rebels say they will not give up territorial gains made in recent months.
“We dealt with Hezbollah, Iran and the Shabiha,” Barbour said, referring to foreign and local forces who have fought alongside the Syrian army. “They were all unable to defeat us, and now Russia will be just like them”.
Additional reporting by Naline Malla in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans, editing by Peter Millership