In Rebel Syria: Celebrating Assad’s Departure–Even Though He’s Still Staying

Pummeled by regime firepower, a rebel town allows itself a brief moment to pretend he's gone. And then it's back to reality.

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A Free Syrian Army rebel starts to deface an image of President Bashar al-Assad which adorned the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, in the restive northwestern Idlib province, July 19, 2012.

The news flashed across television screens in the town of Saraqeb shortly before midday on Friday, declaring that Syrian President Bashar Assad was ready to leave power “in an orderly way,” according to the Russian ambassador to France. The celebratory gunfire erupted seconds later.

Before an hour was up, there would be whisperings in the crowd that perhaps the news wasn’t true and word would come that the Syrian Information Ministry had denied the comments by Russia‘s ambassador to France. It would be murmured by some, but nobody, it seemed, wanted to say it openly. The night before had seen a terrible bloodletting as regime firepower pummeled the town. On Friday, however, at the moment the so-called news broke, the war-weary people of the town in Idlib province wanted something to celebrate.

Young men dressed in a hodgepodge mix of military and civilian garb fired their weapons into the air. Some climbed into pick-up trucks to parade up and down the town’s main street. Families cooped up in their homes after a bloody day and tense night that left at least 25 people dead poured out onto the streets. Neighbors congratulated each other. “Thank God, it’s over,” an old man in a red-and-white checkered headdress said to himself.

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Women ululated. Teenage girls and women threw rice on the fighters as they paraded through the streets. Young children dodged between the vehicles to pick up spent cartridges, and to gather the candy several store owners tossed into the crowd.

“This is not Assad’s Syria, it’s for us!” a young man said before firing his BKC machine gun into the air.  A teenage boy wrapped the revolutionary Syrian flag, with its three red stars instead of the Baathist state’s two green ones, around his shoulders and made the V for victory sign. “Allah u Akbar! Allah u Akbar!” the crowd of several hundred chanted.

Today, there were no pseudonyms, no nicknames as the townsfolk spoke to this reporter. Today, many of the people of this town in central Idlib province wanted to use their real names. “I want to throw away my gun,” said Yasser Samak, 37, thrusting the Kalashnikov he first picked up six months ago into the air.  A realtor by trade, he said he fought with the rebel Free Syrian Army but now wanted to live “a democratic life.” Said he: “I want to live in peace. My wife and I are expecting a little girl, God willing, I want to call her Thawra.” The word is Arabic for “revolution.”

In spite of the whispered naysaying about Assad’s departure, the parade slowly made its way around this town of some 40,000, skirting several neighborhoods where there were still active snipers before returning to the main street near the market. Women sprayed water from garden hoses into the crowd, providing a welcome splash of relief from the searing midday heat. A teenage girl wrapped a woolen winter scarf knitted with the green, white and black of the revolutionary Syrian flag around her hijab, despite the temperature.

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At least one person was wounded by falling shell casings from the celebratory gunfire. It was a communal eruption of relief, of sorrow for those killed, and a sense of pride that they had won their fight without significant international help. “We taught the world that a people’s will cannot be broken, regardless of if we get help or not,” said Mohammad al-Rashad, a civilian watching the parade. “When we took to the streets we said ‘the people demand the fall of the regime,’ not ‘the people demand American and European help.’ Thanks be to God.”

Basil Bakker leaned on the wall of an FSA post along the main street, puffing on a cigarette as he rested his Kalashnikov on the ground. “I am now so very happy, I’m crazy with happiness,” the 29 year old said. He watched the frenzied, boisterous celebration. “You know, I only picked this gun up because I was sick of hearing something called ‘peaceful’ while our people were being killed. I felt it was impossible to beat Bashar peacefully.”

A welder before the revolution,  the young man in green military camouflage pants, a white t-shirt, and a black-and-white keffiyeh wrapped around his head said he didn’t like guns, but that he was not ready to let go of his just yet. “My gun will stay with me until we are certain that he is gone,” he said. “After that, I have two options — either I keep my weapon for my son so that he won’t need to beg for a gun like his father did, or I will wait and see what becomes of this army. I will hand in my gun to the army, not Bashar’s army, but the army of the Syrian Arab Republic, and I hope to never carry a gun against a Syrian again.”

After 40 minutes or so, the gathering started to thin as people headed to the mosques for Friday prayers. And very soon, reality would continue to reassert itself as shelling by regime tanks continued on the outskirts of town.

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