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Rebels show united front in battle for Idlib

Opposition forces prepare to take regime-held city after months of disagreements
Last modified: 24 Jun 2013 22:52

In a safe house a few kilometres from the front lines in Idlib province, a dozen rebel leaders sit cross-legged in a circle on the floor. The conversation is animated but friendly.

In the middle of the group a laptop is opened, and Google Earth zooms in on northwestern Syria.

This is a joint command-and-control centre for anti-government fighters who are preparing for an assault on Idlib city, currently under the control of the Syrian regime.

Rebel fighters have controlled much of the countryside around Idlib for the past twelve months, but infighting has held up an assault on the city. Then, in early June, regime forces regained control of Qusayr to the south. Privately one rebel leader told me that the defeat at Qusayr made the rebels realise they had to work together to prevent further losses. 

At this meeting all defer to Abu Ayman, the regional leader of Ahrar Al-Sham - The Free Men of Syria - a group which wants a country ruled by Islamic law with protection for minorities, including Christians.

Abu Ayman rejects the idea that they've delayed the assault on Idlib. "Cities are the centres of the regime’s power", he tells me. "We don’t have much firepower so we aren’t able to attack the regime in their stronghold. So we started by attacking the small checkpoints around the city so we could seize weapons and practice for a big assault on Idlib."

Scars of battle

Before he became a fighter, the 35-year-old was an agricultural engineer. Now he’s second-in-command of an armed group that has up to 10,000 troops. Like many of the men in this room he bares the physical scars of war. His thumb and little finger are all that remain of the digits on his left hand - the others were blown off when he was trying to fuse a bomb.

"The US president said using chemical weapons crosses a red line," Abu Ayman says as he jabs at the air with his remaining finger. "Does that mean using fighter jets against civilians is not a red line?"

Abu Ayman considers the US decision to supply rebels with limited amounts of small arms. He says that when the uprising against Bashar al-Assad began,  overseas support helped them take control of large parts of the country. "After that the supplies to rebels were cut" - and because of that, he says, "the army has taken back a lot of places."

If and when US weapons do start to arrive, their distribution will be overseen by Salim Idriss, the chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Command. Idriss has promised they won’t fall into the hands of groups the US considers to be terrorists, such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

"We predict the Americans will arm us", says Abu Ayman. "But the question is, why is there a delay? Do they want to depend on certain people who are loyal to America? Having the weapons is better than not having them whatever kind they are." Heavy weapons would be much better, he adds.

City in sights

In the last few weeks the rebels in Idlib have taken control of two of four small Syrian army garrisons outside the city, and are battling for the others. If they can control them, the rebels will then try to take the city itself.

The conversation turns to how this might be achieved. Questions include whether to warn the population to leave, and from which side to attack. Abu Ayman makes it clear that they can only take property from people who have supported or fought for the regime. "Everything else is forbidden for us to touch," he says.

There’s an indication that the rebels are trying to learn from past mistakes. Abu Nour, the leader of a small armed group, reminds them of when they took control of Bab al-Hawa, a crossing on the border with Turkey. "Then we had no idea how to protect property. We just wanted to liberate it. We didn’t know that some of us would steal and loot. Now we’ve had to buy new equipment."

As the meeting winds up all the leaders tell us that the need for weapons and ammunition is getting more desperate by the day. But one admits another growing problem: the campaign to take the garrisons has so far cost the lives of more than 40 rebel fighters.

One leader admits that as the war grinds on, it will be harder to find young men willing to take the place of those killed. So even if the rebels get the weapons they want, they may have difficulty finding men willing to fire them.