How Syria’s Rebels Aren’t Winning the War: The Anatomy of a Battle

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JOSEPH EID / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian army soldiers inspect a house in the village of Western Dumayna, near the rebel-held city of Qusayr, Syria, on May 13, 2013.

The first step in the multipronged offensive, which took 50 days to prepare according to Suleiman, was to effectively cut the M5 highway at Heesh, a town about 17 km from Wadi Deif. The M5 is a key land supply route used by the Syrian army and is the main artery linking the capital Damascus to the central cities of Homs, Hama and through Idlib further north to Aleppo.

Although stretches of the road were already partially destroyed (usually blown up) by the rebels and rendered impassable, TIME saw rebel preparations in late January to completely cut the M5, and visited sites a few hundred meters from the highway where trenches were being dug to provide cover for rebels to get as close as possible to several stretches of the highway to destroy them. The aim was to maintain and strengthen a months-long siege (which was not airtight at that point) on Wadi Deif and its associated checkpoints.

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At first the plan went well, and Assad’s opponents notched up several key wins. The road around Heesh was mined while other stretches were blown up in early February, choking supplies to government troops in Wadi Deif and its associated outposts who had to rely more heavily on air drops from helicopters. Army reinforcements from the south in the form of several columns of tanks as well as convoys of armored vehicles ferrying ammunition were intercepted on the road by rebels and destroyed. The fight around Wadi Deif’s two main defenses, the Zahlanee checkpoint near the village of Marshamsheh and the large Hamidiyeh outpost near the city of Maaret al-Numan, ignited. There were defections, including those of a major and other officers from Wadi Deif. A siege on a nearby military airport of Abu Duhoor was also tightened.

And then, on the night of April 13 things changed — largely because of an act of subterfuge from government soldiers. The rebels’ fortunes turned at Sahyan, a small town south of the town of Babuleen, not far from Heesh, according to several rebel commanders in the area as well as the military council’s Suleiman. The eastern half of Sahyan was in rebel hands, the western in the regime’s. Government soldiers, under cover of darkness, surrounded eastern Sahyan. They had changed out of their uniforms and had dressed into the mismatched civilian and military garb of many rebel fighters, rebel commanders tell TIME. Some even wore the black headbands proclaiming “There is no God but God” that some rebels wear. “The revolutionaries saw them, and thought they were of them, another group,” Suleiman says. “They were all gunned down, everybody in eastern Sahyan was killed, some 40 or 50 men.” In the Syrian war, the loss of that many fighters in one place represents a significant blow to any rebel unit.

The disguised loyalists continued up the road toward Babuleen, a small rebel-held town just a few kilometers from Heesh, where they waited until dawn, before setting up a similar ambush. “All told we lost between 100 to 107 martyrs,” Suleiman says. “I don’t know how many died from the army, but the fight continued for three or four hours.”

By April 15, the army had taken control of Babuleen, and more crucially, had retaken the road around Heesh, breaking the siege on Wadi Deif and allowing reinforcements to reach Zahlanee, Hamidiyeh and other smaller checkpoints. (The eastern part of Heesh is now inaccessible to the rebels. Their trenches are exposed to newly established nearby army positions that are on higher ground.)

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The rebels were reeling, and rather than close ranks and recalibrate, they started blaming each other, including the units that were tasked with securing the eastern part of Sahyan for their perceived laxness. The lack of unity among the ranks of Syrian rebels as a whole has long been a problem that stretches beyond this battle, beyond Idlib and is, in fact, a fundamental challenge to opposition forces.

Their unity, always tenuous, was forged ahead of the battle by a council of religious scholars headed by a cleric from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group, which has affirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda. The council gathered the dozens of various commanders in the area and extracted a pledge of allegiance from each that he would work under its direction, and with his fellow commanders. The accord doesn’t seem to have lasted long.

“The word of religious scholars carries weight with respect to the book and the Sunnah [teachings of the Prophet Muhammad], but they are not able to control the battalions and the large groups,” says the Farouq’s Hajj Zaki. The accord started to fracture within weeks. “It reached a point where their word was no longer heeded on the battlefield.”

The Jabhat al-Nusra sheik heading the council denied that any of the commanders had broken their pledge to coordinate their efforts. “Everybody worked according to his means,” he said, seated on a green mat in the vestibule of his mosque in southern Idlib. Several black Jabhat al-Nusra flags, printed both on cloth and paper, were taped to its walls, alongside large maps of the provinces of Idlib, Hama and Damascus. The sheik would not be drawn on the reasons why the supposedly coordinated battle failed to achieve its aims. “Victory comes from God,” he kept repeating, adding that the rebels must be patient.

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Abu Akram, a rebel commander in the city of Maaret al-Numan from the Islamist Suqoor al-Sham brigades who was part of an operations team planning the battle, was a little clearer about the disputes: “The main reason was the lack of supplies, and we started blaming each other and saying ‘so-and-so has more than me, you pledged to work, why aren’t you?’ until it reached the point that Ahrar al-Sham wouldn’t work with the Martyrs of Syria [brigade], and the Martyrs of Syria wouldn’t work except with so-and-so. So we had to end the battle, and plan for a new one.”

The battle — Marakit il Bina il Marsoos — was ended shortly after the success of the government soldiers’ subterfuge in Sahyan, which broke the siege on Wadi Deif and its defenses. Since then, there have been several other smaller offensives against government positions with names like One Body and Repelling the Enemy, but they all failed to dislodge government forces. A new offensive, Retaliation of Banias, is currently under way and focusing on the Karmid checkpoint, a large government outpost from which troops regularly shell surrounding villages in southern Idlib, and the Abu Duhoor military airport, one of the last military airports still in government hands in the area.

Defections around Wadi Deif have decreased since the failed offensive, commanders say, and some lessons learned — about the reliability of certain groups, the fickleness of weapons suppliers, the lack of strategic planning of some commanders — have been noted. “If a commander suggests a plan and it is a failure and illogical, we won’t rely on him again,” says Abu Akram. Other lessons, especially about forging rebel unity, have not been applied. “We talk about Farouq, Suqoor, Martyrs of Syria, all of them are respected, but we are getting caught up in these names and this is affecting things on the ground,” says Hajj Zaki, the Farouq Brigade’s commander along the Zahlanee front. “If we don’t eliminate the names, we cannot learn to be organized, and that’s the truth, even if it hurts.”

Abu Akram, meanwhile, is taking a long-term view of the fight. After Marakit il Bina il Marsoos, the supposedly coordinated battle to wrest control of the province, “the army is as it was, and we are as we were,” he says from his small outpost in the city of Maaret al-Numan. He points to two teenagers in military camouflage seated in the room. “Look, see them, we are preparing them, training them for this fight, so that no matter how long our revolution continues, we are ready.” He points to another of his men: “This young man is now 18,” he says. “When the revolution started two years ago, he was a boy. Now, he mans a Shilka. This is a long fight.”

MORE: After Assad: What’s Next for the Future of Syria?

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6 comments
IrfanAlam
IrfanAlam

Kolagunta: U seem in a kind of a daze, talking of ostracizing the Muslim world!, something that makes up for upwards of 2000 million souls, on this globe!. The factual situation is teh other way round!, its the Muslims world that ostracizes folks like you and your ilk!, as the cronies of Uncle Sam, how they have to grovel and gallivant, to the whims of many a Muslim despot in Middle East, as well as other parts of world. Seems you need a headshrink, if not the loony bin, as the only accessory!

kolagunta
kolagunta

Syrian conflict is primarily a Shia Sunni war. It is the same across the Muslim world. The US quit Iraq, with a sense of achievement for installing democracy. But today it is in turmoil, which is basically a Shia- Sunni clash. Egypt is already in a fluid state, not to mention about Libya. Pakistan is the main hotbed of this sectarian conflict, which is being indirectly encouraged by the US. In Pakistan it has become an economic activity- Terror Economy funded by the US. This ethnic conflict, which was just equivalent to a family feud during the early 20th century, has grown into major conflict due mainly to the intervention of the West, especially the US. The west for cynical reasons played one sect against another. The autocratic Muslim rulers exploited the situation, which exacerbated the divide. This was an opportunity for countries like Pakistan to convert this conflict into a successful economic model. Terror haven has been created and it has blossomed into transnational activity, endangering the security of the human race and affecting the economy.

The only way to come out of this quagmire is for the west to disengage with the whole Muslim world, ostracize them, except for a very minimal business connection. this business connection is only to safeguard the innocent people in the Muslim world. If you do it today and allow the sects to fight it out between them we can expect peace returning in that part of the world in another 5 years. Many lives could be lost but in the end we can have lasting peace.. 

jonest838
jonest838

I think there are many illogical statements in this article. despites all odds, FSA has been successful in withstanding Assad onslaught.FSA's determination and resolute  will inevitably lead to its final victory

azmalhome
azmalhome

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/violence-is-a-biggest-sin-in-islam-religion/

Quran Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:27    Who break the covenant of Allah after contracting it and sever that which Allah has ordered to be joined and cause corruption on earth. It is those who are the losers.

Don’t do such thing, that’s harmful for you and others. It’s a biggest important story in Islam religion. But most of people know that, it’s truth to everybody that, A violence fetch a lot of trouble in our peaceful social.it never feel  who involve  to do the violence .because ghost(Satan) enter in them vein…

Quran Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:7     Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.

Surat An-Nisā’ (The Women) 4:59     O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.

Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:169  He only orders you to evil and immorality and to say about Allah what you do not know.

Islam means peace and violence means turmoil. Who try to create a turmoil situation in better peace places? They’re not Muslim. But they always try to approve them self as Muslim to people for getting extra opportunity from illiterate Muslim. Prophet  Mohammad  never create a violence situation after  getting a lot of attack  from illiterate people.so Muslim should believe  hardly that A violence is not  in Islamic   rules and regulations, still the violence have been as a most popular matter in Muslim countries than non-Muslim countries.

Every Muslim have to act exactly as Prophet Mohammad .then they will be Muslim in there.AL-Quran did not tell to do violence, so we have to avoid all type of violence. If we think that we are Muslim. Because Muslims must have to follow world’s purest book AL-Quran all the time…

If a party try to take the administration by making violence, then we should must think hardly about that part in first of all. Who do loss for people, they can’t do favour for people.

Malaysia already entered in full of vengeance democracy and politics. Leading opposition political parties took the violence as best work for agitating against government. Mostly Muslim is in them, who are doing violence in Malaysia. They don’t know that the violence is in illiterate Muslim culture. A Muslim can’t like violence to getting governing, if he’s a perfect Muslim in this world.

A violence has happened at Kuala Lumpur in the Malaysia on 28 April in 2012.the name is Bersih  3.0 , I heard  barely the name of cyclone before. But Politician began to give a name of violence now-a-days. I’m sure about it, the violence happened in Kuala Lumpur city for illiterate Muslims. Because they have some misunderstanding with Al-Quran.

That violence have happened at Kula Lumpur in the Malaysia on 28 April in 2012, if Malaysian avoid not such situations, then Malaysian have to go abroad for working as a general worker in future, as like I came in the Malaysia from Bangladesh as a general worker…

Every Muslim must should think about Islamic rules and regulations in first of all. When they plan to reach at a new aim. If they really believe afterlife. I’m absolutely right here that the violence is a biggest sin in Islam religion.

The Bangladesh’s been as a freedom country in year of 1971.but the violence has been a common matter from that time. That’s why Bangladesh is a poorest country in the world after getting a lot of gas mines…

Quran Surat Al-’An`ām (The Cattle) 6:159  Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects – you, [O Muhammad], are not [associated] with them in anything. Their affair is only [left] to Allah ; then He will inform them about what they used to do.

Quran Surat Al-’An`ām (The Cattle) 6:131   That is because your Lord would not destroy the cities for wrongdoing while their people were unaware.

Surat Al-’An`ām (The Cattle) 6:116   And if you obey most of those upon the earth, they will mislead you from the way of Allah . They follow not except assumption, and they are not but falsifying.

Surat An-Naĥl (The Bee) 16:116 And do not say about what your tongues assert of untruth, “This is lawful and this is unlawful,” to invent falsehood about Allah . Indeed, those who invent falsehood about Allah will not succeed.

Surat An-Nisā’ (The Women) 4:30   And whoever does that in aggression and injustice – then We will drive him into a Fire. And that, for Allah , is [always] easy.

Surat Al-Mā’idah (The Table Spread) 5:10  But those who disbelieve and deny Our signs – those are the companions of Hellfire.

Quran Surat An-Nisā’ (The Women) 4:56  Indeed, those who disbelieve in Our verses – We will drive them into a Fire. Every time their skins are roasted through We will replace them with other skins so they may taste the punishment. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted in Might and Wise.

AureliusMarc
AureliusMarc

Great article. For once some firsthand indepth analysis and reporting.