Report: Assad's air force pounds population centers in Syria's Rastan
Rebel forces carry out 'tactical' withdrawal from city to avoid massive loss of life; Syrian military reportedly planning to take back cities of Idlib and Dir al-Zur as well.
The Syrian military launched an aggressive counter-offensive on Sunday, bombing the city of Rastan from the air as "clean-up operations" continued in the city of Homs, particularly in the restive Baba Amr quarter.
Human rights activists in Homs reported that the Red Cross was prevented from entering Baba Amr as Syrian forces committed acts of murder, rape and execution against civilian residents of the quarter.
Meanwhile, in reports and videos uploaded by Syrian opposition activists the Syrian air force is clearly seen bombing population centers in the city of Rastan, north of Homs.
In the wake of the bombings, the Free Syrian Army conducted a "tactical withdrawal" from the city, fearing that their continued presence in the city would draw continued attacks on the city by pro-regime forces, leading to massive loss of life.
Rastan, a city of one hundred thousand people, occupies a strategic location near the Rastan dam and a large bridge that links the northern and southern parts of the country.
Government forces were also expected to target the cities of Idlib and Dir al-Zur. Idlib has served as a primary center of resistence to the regime since the beginning of the uprising, and hosts one of the Free Syrian Army's logistical bases. Due to its proximity to the Turkish border, Idlib and the surrounding villages serve as a way station for refugees and army deserters fleeing the country.
Armed with light weapons, machine guns and light mortars, the Free Syrian Army relies mainly on guerrilla tactics. Opposition sources report that for several weeks the group has been receiving weapons shipments from Iraq. However, the amount of weapons reaching the insurgents in not sufficient to mount a serious military challenge to the country's regular army.
The weapons shipments are apparently being sent by Sunni tribes living near the border, with funding apparently coming from governments of Gulf states that support the opposition, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.
Meanwhile, Al Arabiya quoted Pentagon sources on Sunday saying that the United States currently has no plans to fund or arm the Free Syrian Army.
The involvement of the Syrian air force is likely to revive calls made by Arab states and the Syrian opposition for a no-fly zone over the country. If implemented, such a move could accelerate outside military intervention in the country, along the lines of the Western-Arab intervention in Libya last year.
Such a decision, however, would first have to be approved by the Arab League and the UN Security Council, and somehow overcome the opposition of Russia and China. Opposition sources hope that Russia's position will be more flexible this time, citing statements by Putin that Russia "has no special relationship with the Syrian regime" and that events in Syria are "an armed struggle that must be stopped immediately in order to facilitate dialogue."
Also on Sunday, Reuters reported shelling by Syrian forces against the town of Qusair in the western part of the state, sending residents fleeing on foot to neighboring Lebanon.