[Marxism] Seized by Rebels, Town Is Crushed by Syrian Forces
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 19 07:57:03 MDT 2012
(I continue to be mystified by leftist support for such a murderous
NY Times October 18, 2012
Seized by Rebels, Town Is Crushed by Syrian Forces
By ANNE BARNARD and HWAIDA SAAD
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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