Ground War: Syria’s Rebels Prepare to Take a Province from Assad

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BULENT KILIC / AFP / Getty Images

A shoe stuck in the mouth of a statue of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, at the museum of Maaret al-Numan, in Idlib province on Oct. 17, 2012

It was pomegranate season when the battle for Wadi Deif began in mid-October. Like so many rebel offensives, the fight for the Syrian military base, just east of the devastated city of Maaret Numan and one of the last major loyalist outposts in the vast northern province of Idlib, soon sputtered for the usual reasons — the rebels’ lack of coordination, lack of ammunition and heavy weapons and the strength of regime reinforcements backed by airpower and artillery.

The pomegranate trees in many of the abandoned, rubble-strewn, hollowed-out homes in the adjacent frontline village of Marshamsheh are now denuded, their branches bare, but the rebels hope that before the first buds of new foliage sprout, the base will be theirs.

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It is difficult terrain to storm. The base is protected by two large outposts, the Zahlanee, which is just 600 to 700 m from the various rebel groups that are now this village’s only inhabitants, and the Hamidiyeh, which has come under greater attack from rebels in and around Maaret Numan. The two rebel launch points — Maaret al-Numan and Marshamsheh — are separated only by a few kilometers, but Wadi Deif and its defenses stand between them, necessitating a detour of more than 20 km.

In addition to its imposing position near a strategic spot along the south-north Damascus-Aleppo highway, Wadi Deif is also an important barracks with an armored regiment and a fuel depot believed to hold millions of liters in underground silos. There are at least four other smaller checkpoints protecting it, as well as the Zahlanee and Hamidiyeh.

On Wednesday, the push to take it was forcefully renewed, but unlike previous offensives here and elsewhere that tend to be disorganized, poorly coordinated actions by a few brigades, this phase of the battle has been carefully planned over many weeks. It is not an isolated fight but part of a wider strategy, codenamed Marakit il Bina il Marsoos, or the Battle of Reinforced Structures, 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 — before rebels turn their full attention to the regime forces concentrated in Idlib city, the provincial capital, and the city of Jisr al-Shughour, the two key urban areas still in the regime’s firm grip. If the rebels succeed, they will have taken the first province from Syria’s regime, creating an area completely free of the forces of President Bashar Assad and a de facto safe zone — without direct international help.

The Islamist Vanguard
It is a highly ambitious plan, but that’s not the only thing that sets it apart. The offensive is overseen by a council of religious clerics, a Shari‘a court led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the militant group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S but widely respected by rebels for its disciplined fighting prowess. The court has knitted together dozens of groups from across Idlib province, extracting a sworn pledge from each brigade leader that he will work with the other groups under the direction of the court and will not compete with his counterparts for any ghanaim, or spoils of war, from the outposts if they fall.

It’s not the first time Jabhat al-Nusra has taken the organizational lead in a fight in Idlib. In coordination with the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham brigades, it shepherded the final two-week phase in the months-long battle for the strategically important Taftanaz military airport that fell to the rebels in mid-January. The participation of other groups in those final stages of the fight was only at Jabhat’s invitation. Jabhat al-Nusra also established a committee that first itemized and then distributed the war spoils. Still, the sheer scale of Marakit il Bina il Marsoos, its multiple fronts and the pledges to the Shari‘a court mark it as a new battlefield experiment the rebels hope will be emulated by others if it is successful.

“We invited all of the leaders of the brigades here,” the Jabhat al-Nusra sheik heading the operation told TIME, on the condition that neither his name nor his location be identified. He sat in a vast reception room with green and beige cushions lining its walls and a black Jabhat al-Nusra flag taped to a wall. “This is a difficult, sensitive moment for us now,” he said. “They have all sworn to the court to work together. God willing, this will serve as an example to others.”

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The Free Syrian Army’s Idlib Revolutionary Military Council, headed by Colonel Afif Suleiman, is also involved, but not in a leading role. “The Shari‘a court is empowered to try and hold accountable any side that breaks its pledge,” Suleiman said. “In other battles, there were disputes and tension, people would take the booty that they wanted, so we decided that it is better that the ghanaim would be in the hands of the Shari‘a court and it can distribute it based on the participants.”

Four operations rooms have been established for this fight, with seven people in each, according to Radad Khalouf, leader of Dara Maaret, part of the Islamist Suqoor al-Sham forces, and a member of an operations room representing Maaret al-Numan. Each operations room oversees between 30 and 40 katibas, or battalions. “We are organized and have plans, but what’s holding us back is our thin resources,” Khalouf said on a recent morning, as he walked past buildings crushed by regime artillery and air strikes, through an olive grove and then a little further to see his men on the front line at a location they call the salad mix. Regime warplanes rumbled overhead.

Khalouf’s men, along with several other groups, are spread out along a 5-km southern front in Maaret al-Numan, working to take out the Hamidiyeh checkpoint. Each position is 100 m from the other. There are seven men per post (on six-hour shifts) and each post contains a machine gun, a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, a sniper rifle and four Kalashnikovs. The nearest regime location is only 400 m away in some places, 700 in others.

In the weeks leading up to the renewed multipronged assault, operational secrecy wasn’t exactly airtight (in fact, it was an open secret), nor were the fronts quiet as low-level skirmishes continued.

On a recent day in late January, several of the groups around the Zahlanee checkpoint took part in a failed attempt to try to take the position. They were outmaneuvered and exposed. There’s little between the two sides except neat olive groves lining a gentle slope, their trees too widely spaced to provide much cover, branches heavy with black fruit that is usually harvested when it is green. The loyalists may have seen them coming.

The rebels lost 10 men that day, almost half the group that participated in the raid. “We started after dawn prayers,” one of the participants, Abu Mounzer, said as he returned from the front at midmorning. He was covered in mud and clearly exhausted. “We are trying to remove the wounded but we can’t reach all of the dead.” More than three weeks later, three bodies have yet to be retrieved. They join at least 16 others that have been at the checkpoint for over a month.

The rebels are relying on cutting off the various supply routes to the loyalists inside Idlib province. Toward that end, the Abu Duhoor military airport has been under siege for months. Supplies for the troops are airdropped by helicopters that fly in from air bases in Hama. The rebels have also upped their attacks on the airport. A few days ago, they downed a Russian-built MIG warplane in the area.

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War of Attrition
Still, the task of cutting off the crucial M5 highway that ferries military supplies from Hama and Damascus north to Idlib and Aleppo has largely fallen to the rebels of Heesh, a town about 17 km from Wadi Deif. (Maaret al-Numan is also a critical point along this highway.)

At one end, in an olive grove on a slight inclination 900 m from the highway below, Abu Mahmoud and his men from Katibat Dara al-Ansar lay in wait, ready to ambush any government vehicle that passes. Two days before TIME met them, they blew up an overpass on the stretch of asphalt that passes below them, using an improvised explosive device planted under cover of darkness. The destroyed overpass, which is clearly visible from their position, cut off part of the highway. Now they were hoping to destroy the rest of it.

Four snipers hid behind a makeshift wall of white stones piled atop one another, a little over waist-high, their scopes trained on the road below. Several other men, rifles at the ready, stood behind a thin cinderblock wall, a structure unlikely to offer any protection should the tanks stationed several hundred meters away near a loyalist outpost on a hill overlooking the highway turn their turrets in the rebels’ direction. Abu Mohammad, a tall man with a black-and-white kaffiyeh around his head, green army pants and a black leather jacket, checked in with spotters positioned near the highway to know if a vehicle was on its way. “Number 10, come in, Number 10,” he said into a walkie-talkie. There were no vehicles passing that afternoon, but the day before, a tank was destroyed on this stretch of highway, and towed away by a BMP armored vehicle. (TIME was at Maaret al-Numan and heard the chatter from Heesh about the tank over a walkie-talkie.)

At the other end of Heesh, a short motorbike ride through olive groves pitted with shallow craters formed by mortar strikes, several groups were busy digging a trench leading to their end of the highway. In two days, they’d shoveled out a ditch some 50 m long amid the olive trees. The trench got progressively deeper as it approached the end of the grove. The problem was the wide-open empty grassy field beyond the grove that led directly to the straight strip of asphalt. There was no cover. On the day TIME visited, the rebels still had some several hundred meters to dig, through the open field, as MIGs continued to pound the already devastated town.

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Meanwhile, at Colonel Suleiman’s office elsewhere in Idlib, local military leaders were signing up for the fight and announcing what they intended to contribute. “We are going to bring 7 BKCs [machine guns], about 5 RPGs [rocket-propelled launchers], a 14.5 and a 23 [antiaircraft guns]. If it’s a clear day the planes will be out and we’ll need them,” said Shukrallah Assaf, military commander for Liwa Daraa Idlib, Abu Obaida battalion. “We have a shortage of 14.5-mm ammunition, just so you can take that into account when you distribute it.”

A red-bearded man with freckles and a black turban, a flak jacket under his suit jacket, Kalashnikov slung across his shoulder, walked into the colonel’s office with a palm-size piece of paper. It was a request for 400 meters of electrical cable and 400 meters of phone cable, to be retrieved from a nearby underground depot.

The depot also housed the supplies the council has received so far for the fight: 75,000 Kalashnikov bullets, 15,000 BKC bullets, some 100 RPGs, 10,000 14.5-mm bullets, 10,000 for 12.7-mm antiaircraft guns. “That’s what we have received for the battle for Wadi Deif,” Suleiman said. “What we received was about 10% of what the battalions themselves offered to bring to the fight.”

It’s not enough for a sustained fight, the colonel said, adding that the recent terrorist designation of Jabhat al-Nusra had hurt the FSA’s support, and thinned the weapons and funding provided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “What is happening now with the Syrian revolution is that they offer enough support to keep it going but not enough for us to bring down the regime,” he said. “Naturally, the terrorist designation has affected us, from the countries that move in the American orbit — that is, most countries. The Americans can tell the Saudis, ‘Don’t extend support because here they have a terrorist organization.’ They can tell any country, ‘Don’t help this revolution, one of its components is a terrorist organization.’” Still, the lack of support didn’t seem to faze the colonel, or any of the men on the various front lines. On the contrary. “We can thank God that we are indebted to no one,” Suleiman said. “We will erase the name Wadi Deif, and we will be indebted to no one.”

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