[Marxism] Seized by Rebels, Town Is Crushed by Syrian Forces

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 19 07:57:03 MDT 2012

(I continue to be mystified by leftist support for such a murderous 
state power.)

NY Times October 18, 2012
Seized by Rebels, Town Is Crushed by Syrian Forces

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The town of Maarat al-Noaman in northern Syria was 
just last week the scene of a major victory for the insurgents, who 
drove government forces from checkpoints at a crucial crossroads on a 
major highway, apprehended scores of soldiers, celebrated atop captured 
armored vehicles and declared the town “liberated.”

On Thursday, jubilation turned to horror as government airstrikes sent 
fountains of dust and rubble skyward and crushed several dozen people 
who had returned to what they thought was a new haven in a country mired 
in civil war, according to reporters on the scene for a Western news 
agency, and antigovernment fighters and activists who backed up their 
accounts with videos posted online.

Men stumbled over rubble, carrying single bones nearly shorn of flesh 
and shredded body parts barely identifiable as human. Amid a swirling 
crowd of rescuers, two young men embraced and wept. A man in a baseball 
cap pointed out crumpled buildings that, he said, crushed women, 
children and elderly people sheltering there. An infant in a pink shirt 
lay motionless, then opened its eyes. “God is great,” said a rescuer, 
cradling the baby in his arms.

Maarat al-Noaman’s reversal of fortune highlights the dark turn that 
Syria’s civil war has taken in recent months, as fighting intensifies 
and the government and insurgents remain locked in an increasingly 
bloody stalemate, Syrian residents and military analysts said.

When rebels declare a town liberated, President Bashar al-Assad’s 
government no longer makes much effort to retake territory, they said. 
Now, it sends overwhelming force with one objective — to destroy and 
level all that is left behind.

Regaining and maintaining control requires resources the government, 
stretched on many fronts by the 19-month conflict, cannot afford, said 
Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International 
Institute for Strategic Studies. “So,” he added, “they actually have no 
problem completely destroying it.”

Gutting and abandoning towns rather than trying to govern them shifts 
responsibility for reconstruction and relief onto the shoulders of the 
underequipped rebels, breeding frustration, Mr. Hokayem said, a tactic 
that suggests the government has given up on winning the trust of its 

“They’re not after regaining the hearts of the population,” he said. 
“The calculation is that what’s needed is for the population to start 
resenting the rebels, not to start liking the Assad regime again.”

That dynamic — rebel gains, army crackdowns and ensuing resentment 
against rebels as well as the government — has played out again and 
again in recent months, most recently in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. 
Rebels last month began what they said would be an all-out offensive 
there. But the result was to spread fighting into previously peaceful 
neighborhoods and damage the city’s beloved historic center, leaving 
many residents as angry at the rebels for bringing the fight there as at 
the government for its harsh response.

In Maarat al-Noaman over the past week, rebels attempted to provide some 
services. They tried to distribute bread after the government shelled 
bakeries, activists said, a tactic used in several cities, according to 
a recent Human Rights Watch report. But some of those efforts appeared 
ad hoc and rudimentary: an antigovernment video showed boys, girls and 
adults lining up as men handed out bread from the trunk of a small white 

Abu Ahmed, the commander of a group of fighters from the nearby village 
of Sinbol, said in a Skype interview on Thursday that kerosene supplies 
had sunk so low in the town that rebels had to form a committee to keep 
people from cutting down olive trees for fuel.

An even thornier problem arose that one rebel commander said had left 
his brigade “seriously confused”: how to manage the scores of government 
soldiers captured in the rebel offensive.

“We don’t know what we’re going do with them,” the commander, who asked 
that his name not be used and claimed to be holding 600 prisoners, said 
in a Skype interview on Tuesday. Even feeding them “one loaf, tomato or 
potato” a day would be too expensive, he said. “We don’t have food even 
to feed our families.”

But if the prisoners were released, he said, they might rejoin the army 
or pro-government militias. He said he was beginning to wish they had 
died in the fighting.

Yet the battle exposed weaknesses and strengths on both sides.

While the destruction on Thursday renewed questions about the rebels’ 
tactic of seizing territory, their earlier victory showed their growing 
capability and the strain on government forces. Rebels claimed they had 
been able to seize for a time all the checkpoints between Maarat 
al-Noaman and Khan Sheikhoun, 10 miles to the south along the 
north-south highway that is the main artery between Damascus and Aleppo.

Lt. Ahmad Haleeb, a rebel officer, said in an interview that he had 
fought with more than 150 troops and that they had killed 65 soldiers 
and captured seven in a fight for a checkpoint. In one government-held 
building, a cultural center, rebels shot video of a dozen dead, 
shirtless men they said had been security detainees apparently executed 
as troops fled.

Several units worked together, one attacking government reinforcements 
en route to the battle, activists and fighters said last week. Videos 
described as having been made during the battle showed rebels shooting 
down a helicopter, using small-arms fire in coordinated squads, firing 
rocket-propelled grenades and heavy-caliber weapons mounted on flatbed 
trucks, and even appearing to commandeer an armored vehicle.

They surrounded an army base at Wadi al-Deif, near Maarat al-Noaman, 
where on Thursday, activists and fighters said, government soldiers were 
still trapped without access to supplies amid new shelling by rebels.

“At a purely tactical level that was a defeat for the regime,” Mr. 
Hokayem said of Maarat al-Noaman.

On Thursday, the government said it was pushing rebels out of the town. 
SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported that the army was 
“cleaning” the area and had “killed a large number of terrorists.” It 
said the army had uncovered caves and tunnels storing weapons, and had 
destroyed heavy weapons as well as 60 bombs weighing hundreds of pounds 

But Abu Ahmed, the commander, said that rebels still controlled one side 
of town and aimed to control routes to Aleppo and north to Saraqeb, 
Idlib and Turkey.

Maarat al-Noaman drew attention because of its strategic location, the 
rebels’ unusually well-documented gains and the vivid photographs and 
reporting by Agence France-Presse journalists who were also present 
during the airstrike on Thursday.

The town, with a prewar population of about 120,000, was an obscure 
provincial enclave known mainly for the Alma Arra museum, a 16th-century 
former traders’ inn housing a collection of Byzantine mosaics and 
pre-Islamic pottery — and, on the entryway floor, a mosaic portrait of 
Mr. Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.

But Maarat al-Noaman has broader significance as an archetype of Syria’s 
neglected midsize towns. The country’s hinterland is dotted with more 
than 120 towns with populations of more than 20,000, and battles have 
ravaged many that poverty and resentment made hotbeds of rebellion.

In his effort to win over Syria’s elite with new economic freedoms early 
in his rule, before the uprising, Mr. Assad courted Damascus at the 
expense of the periphery that had long been the base of his Baath Party.

“He won Damascus,” said Mr. Hokayem, the strategic studies institute 
analyst, “but he lost Syria.”

Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone 
from New York.

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