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 short message screeched over a walkie-talkie, prompting the half a dozen rebels in the room who had been lounging on flat mattresses and drinking tea to jump to their feet, grab their guns and run out of the door. It was almost 7:30 p.m. Ten men in civilian garb had just sneaked out of the Syrian army’s Zahlanee checkpoint some 500 m away from the rebel position, just across an olive grove, and were now moving toward a cave on the outskirts of the grove. The cave had been a rebel position at one point. “They told them not to be late,” the voice over the walkie-talkie said, relaying what he had heard from a transmitter set to intercept Syrian Army communications, “so they’re not defectors. They’re not trying to defect. They’re planning something, but what I don’t know.”

A rebel named Ahmad picked up a BKC machine gun, while others grabbed Kalashnikov rifles. Another rebel, Abu Sammy, manned the 14.5-mm antiaircraft gun mounted on the back of a navy blue pickup truck as his colleagues in the Farouq Brigade bundled into the back. It sped a short distance down a narrow deserted path closer to the Zahlanee checkpoint, one of two key loyalist positions that protect the larger, fortified Wadi Deif military base. (The other is called the Hamidiyeh.) The base is one of the last remaining Syrian military outposts in the vast northern province of Idlib. The rebels have been trying to overrun it since at least October as they try to wrest full control of Idlib. So far, Syria’s rebel forces have not managed to gain full control of any of the country’s 14 provinces.

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Dusk was falling and it was raining as the men dismounted and spread out near an abandoned, partially destroyed house near the olive grove. Some of them crouched near herbs planted in rusting 18-L tins of vegetable oil lined along the patio as the pickup truck maneuvered into position. Abu Sammy fired a volley of shots toward the government soldiers before retreating out of sight, behind the damaged house.

The army’s response was swift: the orange glow of three rounds from what the rebels said was a ZSU-23-4, or Shilka antiaircraft gun, flew over the house, landing in a nearby field. “You pigs!” Ahmad said. Four more bursts from the Shilka whizzed overhead. A few sniper shots crackled. The rebels responded with the 14.5-mm, firing it each time from a different position along the short graveled path. The back and forth continued for half an hour.

“How many suffocated?” Ahmad said into a walkie-talkie, asking his colleague who was listening to the radio chatter of the troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. (Enemy dead are never “martyred,” they are often “killed” but sometimes described by the less-dignified “suffocated.”)

“They’re calling for the doctor, there are eight wounded,” came the reply.

“Praise be to God. That’s great.”

(MORE: Savage Online Videos Fuel Syria’s Descent Into Madness)

The night’s tally among the government soldiers was relatively high: five dead, three wounded, according to their radio chatter. It was a small victory for these rebels, who have been holding the line in the devastated, deserted village of Marshamsheh, around the Zahlanee checkpoint, since October. But in the wider war for control of the Wadi Deif base and Idlib province, they are on the back foot.

“Battles are about ebb and flow,” says Hajj Zaki, the Farouq’s commander there. “We don’t want to look at the glass as half-empty.”

On Feb. 6, a coordinated rebel offensive codenamed Marakit il Bina il Marsoos, or the Battle of Reinforced Structures, was unleashed to open all the remaining fronts in Idlib province at around the same time — Wadi Deif, the Karmid checkpoint, the Mastoomeh checkpoint, the Abu Duhoor military airport and the smaller checkpoints associated with these outposts. The plan was then to pivot to take on the regime forces in the provincial capital of Idlib city, and the city of Jisr al-Shughour, the two key urban areas in the province still under the control of forces loyal to Assad.

The attack was the rebels’ second major attempt to snatch the positions and take control of Idlib. But like the first offensive in mid-October, it also soon fizzled.

The rebels’ struggle for Idlib is a microcosm of the battles being played out elsewhere in this more than two-year conflict that has left at least 80,000 people dead and millions more displaced. Although vast swaths of the country, especially across the north, have fallen out of Assad’s control, they are still within the reach of his artillery and warplanes. Government forces appear to be focusing on regaining or maintaining control of key roads and towns near strategic highways, rather than trying to win back all of the lost territory, and on consolidating their hold in the towns and cities they still control. Rebel commanders, meanwhile, are trying to learn the lessons of why their ambitious, province-wide offensive essentially failed.

The reasons are simple and have been replicated on many a battlefield across Syria in this vastly asymmetrical war, yet they also highlight the complexity of the conflict — the difficulty of uniting rebel ranks, the inconsistency of rebel supplies of weapons and ammunition, and the creativity of Syrian army tactics.

“We did what we could with what we had,” says Colonel Afif Suleiman, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Idlib Revolutionary Military Council, from his office in a school in southern Idlib. “Weak means gave us weak results.”

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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.