BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels broke through a yearlong government blockade in the city of Homs after fierce clashes last week, a symbolic victory for the ragtag force at a time when the conflict has ground into a stalemate in most large cities.
The gains in Homs, the third-largest city in Syria and one of the most contested battlegrounds in the war, came during the same week that marked the second anniversary of a bloody conflict that has left more than 70,000 dead.
"They are trying to make a point to take it back from the regime. The city means something for the revolution," said the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog group, who uses the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman. "They are trying to say we are still here."
The city appears to have equal symbolic importance for the government.
The Syrian military retaliated with airstrikes and artillery in a number of neighborhoods in Homs last week, according to activists and rebel fighters.
Since December, the Syrian military has carried out at least three massacres in towns near Homs in an apparent attempt to secure the perimeter of the city, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria noted in a report.
"There are no more enclaves of stability in Syria today, and the civilian space is almost completely eroded," commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva after presenting the U.N. report last Monday, according to The Associated Press.
But even if the rebels can hold on to their hard-fought gains in Homs, it will be difficult to return the city to a semblance of what it was before the conflict started. Many neighborhoods have been heavily damaged by the fighting, and water and electricity are sometimes cut for days, residents say.
The sectarian nature of the conflict has also split the population of the city, a mix of Sunnis and Alawites.
"No one lives in the opposite area anymore. Sunnis are living with Sunnis, and Alawites are living with Alawites," said Sarah, a 23-year-old college student who lives in Homs. "They can get killed or kidnapped for revenge if they were to be seen there," she added in a Facebook chat.