Inside Syria's Revolution Outmatched Rebels Gain Ground Amid Crackdown

As President Bashar Assad continues his brutal efforts to maintain power, Syria's rebellion has turned into a full-fledged civil war. Conditions are dire, but the outnumbered rebels report making progress. Eyewitnesses described the front lines for SPIEGEL.

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It is a mistake to believe that dead people don't talk. They talk nonstop in Syria, at least on the telephone. "It's the last greeting from our martyrs," says one of the young organizers of the resistance movement in a suburb of Damascus, as people around him discuss battles and changing fronts without fear that intelligence agents will monitor on their conversations. That's because the insurgents are using phones that contain the SIM cards of dead people. They can no longer be killed, the man says calmly.

What began about 11 months ago as a peaceful protest for democracy and reforms has since turned into a war waged by the regime against large segments of the Syrian population. Month after month, protesters were beaten and shot, thousands were killed and tens of thousands disappeared without a trace -- until autumn, when the rebels began returning fire.

International appeals and embargoes have failed to deter President Bashar Assad's regime from responding with increasing violence. Until Friday of last week China and, most notably, Russia, had blocked every United Nations resolution against Syria. Not even the presence of an observation mission from the Arab League kept the regime in check. Instead the brutality has increased dramatically since the observers left on Jan. 28. Elite troops, particularly members of the 4th Division of the Syrian Army, under the command of the president's brother, Maher Assad, are no longer shooting at individuals with guns. They are now using tanks and grenade launchers to bombard entire rebel neighborhoods from a distance.

It is an uneven match between the heavily armed troops of the regime and the poorly equipped rebels of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA. Nevertheless, the rebels are gaining ground.

In recent weeks SPIEGEL, both from Hamburg and with the help of a local colleague, has once again contacted the people who had provided access to the rebels for past research efforts. This enabled the editors to obtain eyewitness reports from the centers of the rebellion -- the Damascus suburbs, and the embattled city of Homs and Zabadani, which the anti-regime forces have controlled for the last two weeks.

Smoke Over Damascus

In recent days, grenades could be heard exploding in downtown Damascus for the first time, and columns of smoke rose from the northeastern part of the city. Within days, FSA units had gained control over Harasta, Irbin and Duma -- the suburbs where there had been a number of demonstrations since last spring. Now the protests have turned into open fighting. It took the elite units of the government's 4th division several days to regain control over the neighborhoods. "Maher's soldiers were within 800 meters (2,624 feet) of us last Tuesday, on Wednesday it was 500 meters, and by Thursday they were in the center of the district," says one of the members of the local committee in Irbin, who calls himself Abu Said. The former suburb, which has now become part of Damascus, is six kilometers from the city's downtown area. "If I got up on the roof I could see the presidential palace," says Said. "But then I would probably get shot."

No one even considered fighting with weapons until a month ago, says Said. "But by that time 26 people had already been shot to death during the protests, and 150 were abducted and disappeared. Assad's troops didn't just shoot at demonstrators. They even opened fire on funeral processions." Said can no longer understand this. "Even if someone is my enemy, at least you have to respect the dead," he says.

To recapture the suburb, home to some 50,000 people, Assad's troops brought in tanks, then shut off the water, power and telephone network until the FSA withdrew after three days of fighting. A grenade tore a hole in the roof of the local mosque, and five civilians died in the gunfire, including an old woman standing in her kitchen and a three-year-old girl.

"Then the soldiers came to search the houses for fighters," says Abu Said. "But the men from the 4th Division and the security services stayed out in the streets, sending in the recruits from regular units instead. Everyone was afraid, we of them and they of us."

But by Thursday at noon, the elite units had pulled out again, leaving a few regular troops behind in Irbin. "They're all being transferred to Zabadani," the observation posts reported.

Mountain Stronghold

Zabadani, normally an idyllic vacation spot in the mountains 50 kilometers to the northwest, where many wealthy Damascus residents have summer homes, is the first city controlled by the insurgents. The rugged, wooded area is not good terrain for tanks. Besides, the regime did not realize how important the area was until it had already been occupied by insurgents. Much of the drinking water for Damascus comes from sources in the mountains.

There is a fragile cease-fire with the army, but there is little food left in Zabadani, and there are only a few hundred rebels defending the city. "We received €900 from Germany today," says a local activist. The donation came from "Adopt a Revolution," a Berlin initiative spearheaded by Germans and Syrians. It isn't much, says the activist, "but otherwise we get nothing at all from the outside world. We need food, satellite telephones and medicine!"

Last Friday, insurgent military council leaders in Zabadani were still negotiating with officers from the government's troops over extending the cease-fire. "Apparently they really are afraid that we will cut off Damascus from its water supply," the council's spokesman says incredulously. But, he adds, they wouldn't think of doing such a thing.

The troop movements on the other side have the besieged residents and insurgents feeling somewhat hopeful, though. They say that Assad is constantly moving his most important elite units from one location to another. The FSA cannot hope to prevail against them militarily, but the insurgency continues the minute they are gone. The remaining divisions of the Syrian army, which nominally consists of up to 300,000 men, are not just being worn down by the growing refusal of soldiers to shoot at their fellow Syrians, but are also becoming a threat to the regime. Entire groups of soldiers are now switching sides, taking their weapons with them, as they did a week ago on the outskirts of the Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs.

The neighborhood had been under fire for days by about a dozen soldiers barricaded behind sandbags. Meanwhile, men from Syrian Air Force intelligence stood behind them, threatening to shoot anyone who refused to take aim at the insurgents. But then the men took advantage of a moment when they were not being watched, running to the other side as a group. The residents they had been shooting at moments earlier received them with open arms.

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