The Syrian Army Strikes Back: Eyewitness to Assad’s Retaliation on a Rebel Town

Saraqeb rejoiced when the heart of the regime was struck. Then the President's soldiers hit back

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Smoke billows from burning tires and trash containers in the Al-Hajar al-Aswad district of the Syrian capital Damascus, July 18, 2012.

The battle started at 6 p.m. on Thursday. For several hours beforehand, the men of several Free Syrian Army units as well as members of the separate Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigades operating in this town of 40,000 were busy preparing for the fight. The target was the Kaban checkpoint along the Aleppo-Damascus highway, one of four loyalist outposts ringing Saraqeb.

The young rebels in this town in central Idlib province had been preparing for days for what they feared would be an imminent attack by loyalist tanks and troops surrounding them.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)

But things changed on Wednesday, after the deaths of several senior regime figures in an audacious attack by the Free Syrian Army in the capital Damascus. Armed men, many in pick-up trucks, paraded through the town’s main street in impromptu celebrations, shooting their limited ammunition into the air. The crackle of gunfire intermingled with the cries of Allah u Akbar, or God is Great, blaring from the town’s mosques. “Your leaders are dead. You are our brothers! Join us!” a call from the mosque said.  “We will open our homes to you.”

There was a sense of invincibility, or perhaps inevitability, spurred by news flashes pouring in via Arabic satellite channels about mass defections from the regime elsewhere in Syria, and about checkpoints being overrun and their precious booty of tanks, weapons and ammunition falling into rebel hands. “What is wrong with us? Why haven’t we done anything yet,” said one young activist, Ahmad, as he watched the news. “Is it real? Is it really almost over?” asked a young FSA fighter who took up arms a year ago. “I’m so sick of guns, bullets, bombs.”

He didn’t have to wait long for his answer. Later that night, just before 11 p.m., a rocket landed near the Brek family home, killing a little girl, her brother and her mother as well as her two aunts and another woman from her family.

Perhaps it was bravado, perhaps it was a sense that the regime was on the back foot, or perhaps it was just a desire to end a drawn-out conflict that had left townsfolk weary, and even little girls able to differentiate the sound of a sniper bullet from other forms of gunfire. Whatever the reason, the rebels of Saraqeb were determined to take out the Kaban Checkpoint on Thursday. There were overnight negotiations (over the phone) with loyalist troops reportedly negotiating their defections. By early Thursday morning, a first lieutenant and 11 soldiers were supposedly ready to switch sides.

Then the regime struck back in earnest. The first tank shell landed on the home of a regime supporter, eliciting smug reactions from many of the young men gathered outside an FSA outpost in one of the town’s schools. That turned into peals of laughter when one man drove the white fire truck up the street to put out a small fire near his own home. “He’s not from the fire department,” said Abu Ahmad. “It’s self service,” he said, using the English term.

Intense gunfire suddenly erupted. The thud of mortars pounded positions within the town. A helicopter circled overhead before unloading several rockets into a residential area called the northern neighborhood. The power and cell phone service was out, but an hour into the battle several young activists fired up a generator, hooked up an internet connection and called nearby FSA units via Skype asking for help.  “Listen brother, the power is out here so the line might cut out. We need RPGs, two, three as many as you have. Brother, it’s a very difficult situation now, mortars, tanks and there’s a helicopter now too. Whoever can come, come.”

Men sped through empty streets on motorbikes, some slinging RPGs and AK-47s on their shoulders. They ferried the wounded to the town’s hospitals, car horns blaring to clear the way of the few curious pedestrians who had ventured out of their homes. Most families sought refuge in homes that had basements.

“The rockets are killing us,” said Fady, a fighter in full military camouflage, AK-47 between his legs, as he drove along a street at breakneck speed toward the Hassan Hospital. “Except for the day that the army entered the town (on March 24), this is the first time that we see this kind of shelling.”

Dozens of men stood outside the Hassan Hospital, waiting to receive the wounded. A lightly wounded man was carried in on a stretcher, a minute later, the men outside the hospital were screaming for a stretcher. Then for more  stretchers as five cars unloaded their bloodied passengers. A man covered in black ash and bleeding profusely was carried in on an orange stretcher. Within minutes more than a dozen wounded were ferried in by armed men. One died on the street outside the hospital. His bright red blood formed a pool on the asphalt, as the sad, angry frantic crowd around him cried out “God is Great!”

“Tell the people that there is no more room here!” a man yelled from the hospital steps. “Send them to Shifa (hospital).”

But the cars kept coming, disgorging the wounded. Bloodied bodies were carried in even as others were carried out of the hospital, mainly of the dead. Grown men cried openly. Bloodied footprints covered the tiled floor of the hospital. A few women standing on the hospital steps were crying hysterically.

A woman in a striped burgundy and navy floor-length, long-sleeved dress made her way up the few broad steps to the hospital entrance. “Where is Saddam?” she screamed to anyone, to everyone. The hospital foyer was full of armed men, many of whom had ferried their colleagues as well as wounded civilians. The woman turned from one man to the other, screaming out the same question – “Where is Saddam?”

“I have lost his father today, I cannot lose him too! I want my son!” She could barely stand. Two fighters propped her up, preventing her from collapsing on the blood-soaked hospital floor. She walked up stairs, down stairs, opened every door. “Saddam is fine,” somebody tried to tell her. “Then show him to me, where is he!” she said.

She seized on Khaled, a tall middle-aged fighter with graying hair, strapped in a black ammunition vest, with an AK slung across his back. “Where is he?” she yelled at him, grabbing him by his black vest. Khaled did not respond. He could not even look at her. She slapped him. “Where is my son!” He turned away from the mother, forlorn, distraught, deeply troubled.

Her son had been killed but he could not tell her. [UPDATE: Khaled turned out to be mistaken. Saddam had suffered a head wound, was unconscious and thought to be dead. But he survived.]

(READ: Tragedy in a Small Syrian Town)

There was no room inside the bloodied consulting and operating rooms. Two children, a little girl in purple track pants, her head bandaged, and her younger brother, also covered in bandages were walked out of the hospital. They were both covered in a smooth soft dust. They, like so many others, were quickly patched up and ferried out to make way for the stream of others. One man walked out in his black underwear, blood dripping from his bandaged left leg.

Some 20 minutes after she first entered the hospital, Saddam’s mother ran out. “He’s dead! He’s dead!” she yelled.  “My boy is dead!” She collapsed on the road outside the hospital, next to the pool of blood formed by the young man who died there. Several armed men tried to console her before ushering her into a car and driving her home.

“Empty the area, empty the area! Three tanks are moving toward us now!” somebody yelled. The crowd scattered. Two teenage boys stood at the ready with an orange stretcher.

Over at the Abdel-Wakil women’s hospital, a middle-aged woman with a shrapnel wound to the head waited for a doctor to see her. She cried out for her brother Iyad. She was the only wounded person to make it to the hospital. “A rocket hit our home and our neighbor’s house,” Iyad said. “My sister, her husband and three children, and my wife and children were all in the house.” His white polo shirt was drenched in blotches of blood. “I don’t know where my children are,” he said.  “They’re five, eight and 11. I don’t know where they are!”

“Take her to the Shifa hospital. She needs a CT scan. We can’t treat her here,” a doctor in green scrubs said, referring to Iyad’s sister. They couldn’t find a car to transport her there. “There’s no gas,” yelled a nurse. “This is all because of you Bashar!” The hated President no longer needs to be named in full.

“The army is here, quickly the army has entered!” somebody yelled from the street. Gunshots rung out. The thumping sound of mortars continued.  A car arrived and ferried the wounded woman, as several nurses frantically took turns to use the landline in the hospital’s administration office to call their families. (Although cell phone coverage has been out for weeks here, the landlines still work.)

Back at the FSA outpost at the school, armed fighters slowly trickled back from the front and from the hospitals, asking about the dead and the wounded. The checkpoint was destroyed and the 15 or so soldiers manning it all killed. “Nobody expected this kind of retaliation,” one young fighter said. “They knew where we were, why didn’t they come after us instead of the families?”

At 9 p.m., the Hassan Hospital was still receiving wounded, mainly from the northern neighborhood where several rockets reportedly fell. Khaled, the armed fighter, was still in the hospital. He sat on the hospital steps, ammunition vest and AK-47 still slung across his back. “I’ve lost my sister in law, my neighbor’s entire family today,” he said, holding his head in his hands.

“Make way, make way!” several men yelled. A young girl, no more than 4 or 5 was carried in by a man, followed by an older woman on a stretcher and a middle-aged man. Tala, the little girl, was crying for her mother. A nurse searched for a pair of scissors to cut away her blood-soaked pink t-shirt. “Don’t be scared my darling,” the male doctor told her. She had shrapnel in her bloodied left eye, at least two small pieces lodged in the left side of her bleeding neck. Her short black hair was arranged in two ponytails, tied with pink bands.

“I want my mother,” she cried through tears.

“She’s coming my darling, she’s coming,” the nurse said.

The base of the child’s head was cut open. A blood-spattered green curtain was drawn in the room as a doctor started stitching her head wound without anesthesia. Her screams pierced the frantic, frenzied cries of others in the hospital that night.

The electricity cut out while Tala was being treated, three times in 20 minutes. Doctors yelled at armed men to get out of the consulting rooms. “She is my aunty, this is my uncle,” one armed fighter said, crying as he pointed to the middle-aged couple on the  floor.

By 10 p.m., the death toll stood at 25, according to activists. The Hassan Hospital did not have any statistics about the dead and wounded. Many of the dead weren’t placed in the town’s morgues but were retrieved by their families and immediately buried in the martyrs’ cemetery. (As night fell it was simply too dangerous to head to the cemetery to verify the numbers.)

The armed men outside the hospital were angry, hyped up, ready to head back and fight. But in other parts of the town, some civilians, as well as fighters, were questioning if the attack on the checkpoint was worth it, especially given that little ammunition and weaponry was retrieved from the site. “It was too high a price,” said one woman. “Too much blood.”

“It was a failed operation,” one fighter said of the attempt to take the checkpoint.

The mortars and whistling rockets continued well into the night. At 12.04 a.m., one of the town’s mosques broadcast a message. This time, it wasn’t directed at the loyalist troops surrounding the city, urging them to defect. It was for the townsfolk. “People of Saraqeb, there is a wounded 12-year-old boy in the hospital. We don’t know whose son he is.”

MORE: Photos of Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War

31 comments
MichaelJefferies
MichaelJefferies

I know they have <a href="http://www.mclay.ca/company/offices/index.php">bankruptcy trustees in Woodstock</a>, but what I hope is that they have bankruptcy trustees in Syria. War is ugly and the common people are much more likely to pay the financial price for it than the "elite" terrorists. Zzz..

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Middle East realities:

1.      Toppling the depot doesn’t equate erecting a democracy.

2.      Having an election doesn’t equate a better government.

3.      A civil government doesn’t equate the rule of law.

4.      Popular sentiment doesn’t equate human rights, especially to minorities.

5.      Violence is not the child of war. It’s the other way around.

6.      Being fiercely nationalistic does not guaranty the national wellness.

7.      Your enemy’s enemies are not necessarily your automatic allies.

8.      Soldiers’ cruelty is not limited to top ranking generals.

9.       Teach them to hate the enemy and they will despise their own people.

10.   The dictators are supported by wider self serving power structures than you like to believe.

Dave
Dave

Wow the westren news is so full of it, They spend so much time going after  Assad when the reality is both sides are as bad as the other. Lets see Assad or the iranian backed brotherhood Not good for the every day syrian. The killings have always been there and will still be there after Assad is gone.

akahen
akahen

After reading a lot of these pro-Syrian comments, I am convinced that there is a campaign paid by the Iranians to have people come to website and leave B.S comments about how these are nothing foreigner movements or how it is CIA and stuff like that.  These are the conspiracy and lies mass produced in Iran who is murdering its own citizens.  A lot of it seems like the soviet style propaganda.

anyways, none of these comment has put forth a simple shred of evidence to show what they are contending is the truth. 

http://benjaminkahen.blogspot....

Guest
Guest

The truth in the media, be it written, radio, tv, what ever the venue, is 5% fact 95% propaganda.

Tom Dee
Tom Dee

the rebels are really a paid arm group who are not from syria.  Look at who fund the armed thug and they are to be blamed.  my vote they work for hillary

SiDevilIam
SiDevilIam

Interesting. Somebody at TIME, trying to write a spicy novel, or something?

War and Peace, Oops, War, more war and war forever and ever?

Guys, simmer down. One swallow, does not make a Spring and one small, insignificant skirmish in a godforsaken town of 40,000, does not make a news (story, a very long, poetic in nature, story).

Just don't do it. Ain't right.

Separately, CIA is opening up their (war) chest and handing over goodies.

I be damned. What has CIA to do with Bashar al-Assad's backyard fistfight? Maybe, CIA wants more money, more power to assassinate heads of the states. Maybe, CIA wants to get in fron and center seat.

Again.

This is not a story, short or long. I am serious over Syria shenanigans, TIME, you included.

...and I am Sid Harth@webworldismyoyster.com

SickOfTheStupid
SickOfTheStupid

When our government approves of and applauds a suicide bomber terrorist for his actions it is a clear indication our government is morally bankrupt .

Wake up people we instigated and feed this violence in Syria , these are not freedom fighters , but paid CIA mercenary's with one goal in  mind destroy Syria  so it can be broken up and cannibalized by the capitalist like Libya is experiencing .........

lkfman
lkfman

Thank you for some simple common sense on here. I am American, but I refuse to be brainwashed by the lies being broadcast and published by our one-sided media fueled by government propaganda. I wonder how many people condemning President Assad for fighting these terrorists, praise Israel's government for bombing civilian areas in retaliation for attacks? I'm not detecting and sort of double standards here am I?

Redmond Herring
Redmond Herring

One person is responsible for the deaths of thousands.  The great mass of Syrian people need Assad ....... dead.   It is one of them, a Syrian patriot, not us, not NATO, not some "visitor" who should make that happen. 

lkfman
lkfman

Keep believing the propaganda machine. It's really amazing and sad how many people put the blame on Assad when he is simply attempting to protect Syria and it's citizens from these western backed terrorists that are seeking to destroy this nation.

akahen
akahen

Seriously Guys,

I have a feeling that Iranians are training Syrian Murderous regime very well.  It seems like they are good at paying people to come to websites and leave comment in support of the regime to basically give them a different look.

Somehow, a lot of these comments tends to conform to conspiracy theories and they sound a lot like IRNA and Press TV B.S.

http://benjaminkahen.blogspot....

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

 It's really amazing that that Assad, if as you claimed to be, protecting Syria by killing nearly 15,000 people, of which the majority were unarmed civilians.  Either a very cruel person or an absolutely incompetence person at providing the basic security. 

Obviously, people like you like to blame the West for all your problems.  But look at the Arab Leagues, even them are outraged and placing sanctions on Syria. 

Curt Mayer
Curt Mayer

and the Mighty Wurlitzer gets fired up again. 

Whenever you get emotionally charged drivel like this, you really should know by now that you are being played.   Remember the 'rape of Kuwait' with the live babies ripped from their incubators, etc.   Remember the mobile biological weapons labs in Iraq?  Remember poor Colin Powell forced to lie to you for his boss?

Are there any critical thinking neurons left anywhere? Cui bono? Who benefits most from the implosion of libya, egypt, and syria?

The arab spring is a wildly successful joint CIA/mossad operation.

Land Destroyer
Land Destroyer

If you believe a "TIME reporter in Syria" I have some ocean front property in Colorado you might be interested in. This garbage, if you've been following #Syria on Twitter, is nothing but a conglomeration of "activist" claims crafted into a narrative.

TIME are hysterical liars billowing in whatever prevailing wind of propaganda blows by - remember their lies about Iraq and how many lives that cost- and TIME's financial sponsors reflect the corporate-financier interests funding the very think tanks behind this policy of destroying Syria - which started at least as early as 2007.

If you want to be truly informed, close TIME, open the New Yorker, and read Seymour Hersh's "The Redirection" from 2007. You will learn who is really behind this violence, why, and who it is that really constitutes a threat against world peace.

This is not journalism. It is an appeal to your emotions - in other words, they aim at manipulating you, circumventing logic and reason.

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

So, you discredit one source and promote another source.  The truth is somewhere in the middle of both sides.  I would say the more sources you read the better.

shadowlands
shadowlands

Thank your for reporting this.... whilst I struggling with feelings of powerlessness in relation to this whole crisis it is some small relief to know that you are putting into black and white what is actually going in there. 

I can only say again... even if our governments ( I am from the UK ) cannot agree on action there are many, here, whose hearts stand with the Syrian people at this time. Your courage and determination to be free of tyranny is an inspiration to those of us sitting safely behind our computer screens.

Tom Dee
Tom Dee

if you want to help vote the war mongrs in you country out of office.  Look as the misery caused by you nation in iraq.  Look at the lir of tony blair.  The people of syria are being attacked by foreigners funded by you government.  In 1917 you nation was given the palestine mandate so your nation has a long record of being part of the problem.  The problems in the area really is your fault

brianmc3113
brianmc3113

Oh, please ..... if these people don't have a common enemy to blame for all their problems they just start killing each other anyway, so what's the point?  What do you think is going to happen in a place where most of the population under 30 has minimal job prospects and less hope of those prospects ever getting better?

akahen
akahen

Tom Dee,

You are a horrible person.  That is all I have to call you.  People like you are involved with personal ideology and you hate the fact that there are movements that are against what you actually believe in.  Then you resort to cheapt propaganda originating from a dictator who has killed 16,000 of his own citizens. 

I am sorry Tom Dee, but 16,000 is a high number.  No sane person would murder 16,000 people to stay in powers. 

On other hand, the problems in this reigon are the people's fault.  I am from that region and I am telling you, most of the problem is from the people.  We are responsible.  WE!!!!! You know why?  Because we have never taken accoutability for our actions.  There are corrupt politician who blatantly steal from the nation and you want to blame Brits.  Yes, they are not saints, but they are not the cause of the existing problem.  Unfortunately, the introduction of Marxism and Leftist ideology that infested these areas did nothing but to teach people that blame all of your problems on the West or the rich or the capitalist.  People or government never nlearnedto be held accountable and they alway sruled by force and guns such as Soviet did. 

Over all, you get the point!!!!!

Halo2Alexis
Halo2Alexis

 My heart breaks every time I watch the news....it's indescribable and my heart goes out to all the innocent who have been killed.  I can hear the voices of the mothers of Syria screaming and the children crying, the loss and confusion.  If my child were hurt or killed....I honestly don't know how I could continue on.  The strength and faith, whatever religion or country, that the citizens of Syria possess, it is truly astounding. 

I'm from the United States, and am only one individual.  Our government doesn't listen to us, but I believe that our people, our citizens, CAN hear you...but how can we help? I'm not really much for religion, but I have always believed in some relative good in this world, hope, and love above all others.   I don't know what else to do but pray.  I'm very scared for everyone involved.

May God, Allah, or whomever you as an individual believe in, please protect the children, the lost and suffering, tonight, and for every night thereafter.  Stay safe, stay strong.  YOU ARE LOVED.  

Redmond Herring
Redmond Herring

A Syrian patriot with a scoped rifle and patience, not us, not NATO, not some "visitor" must end this.

temzil
temzil

Would you have coffee with the Taliban?

akahen
akahen

wow!!!

I read this and it moved me. That's all I could say about this.  Just wow!!!

I am a Jew from a Middle Eastern country.  I could only hope that peace finds its path to these countries.  True peace!  A peace that is not contingent on terror, religion, and/or force.  Peace where people just live their lives fully without an agenda, without enforcing an ideology.  Peace where differences is sorted out via democratic means instead of guns and mortars.

http://benjaminkahen.blogspot....

mahboob_1948
mahboob_1948

 How can there be peace in Middle East?Since  the three religions namely Judaism,Christianity and Islam started there friction  and killings has been there in the name of religion.Do away with the religion so that you may find peace.

akahen
akahen

Mahboob,

You could not be any more wrong.  Marxisim was a secular movement and it killed more people than any other movement.  Religion is only a tool in this region for the hatred.  You want to solve that concept, religion needs to be dealth with in a way that would allow absolute freedom for evrybody.  Religion needs to be constrained to Personal Life and Place of worship.  Meaning, keep the religion within yourself and your own domain on a personal level and place of worship such as Churches, Mosques, and Temples.  Do not allow religion to be involved in the politics and problem solved.

You guarantee the right of ownership and the concept of property and private property owned by a person, at that point you could find peace.

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

First off, I'm a capitalist.

I will defend that Marxism, as an idea, was not responsible for the direct killing of people in communist countries.  It was responsible for the indirect killing of people through systemic failures resulting in famines and poverty.  The direct killing of people was due to communist totalitarian government that in a lot of ways was like a theocratic regime.  In China, in Soviet, in Vietnam, in Khmer Rouge, and in North Korea, they all had a personality cult leader that people worship as similarly as a God in theocratic regime.  Marxist government is in no way secular.  They were secular to the conventional God, but in God's place, they put in place a person that worked just like a God.

Now the challenge is, can you name a secular state that built on the principles of Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and Jean Rousseau, that resulted in the killing of people.