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.”

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