Inside Syria: rebels and regime trapped in cycle of destruction

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports: According to the rebels, a month of fierce fighting and artillery bombardment in Deir el-Zour city has seen hundreds of civilians, rebel fighters and loyalist soldiers killed, and 86 tanks and armoured vehicles destroyed.

But even as the civil war has moved into Damascus, the regime’s security forces have continued to fight on this far edge of the country. In the past week government forces managed to take over two major intersections in the city, occupying them with tanks and establishing sniper positions. Many of the rebels are close to exhaustion. Food is served once a day to the fighters and supplies have dwindled to a trickle. They take four hours to travel a gruelling route through government lines.

The soldiers fare better than the civilians, however, as smuggled food comes with smuggled ammunition. The civilians are reduced to begging food from the fighters. One day during a week-long stay, a woman approached us.

“We need food. I have four kids and nothing to feed them,” she said. “I will send you some tins later,” said the fighter, sounding tired. “I have asked three units before and no one gave me anything,” the woman retorted, before walking away.

The ragtag army can fight a war of attrition with the government, but with no leadership and no command structure, they are unable to organise a concentrated attack on its bases.

Opposition forces in Deir el-Zour are organised into around 20 battalions. The fighters consist of secularists and salafis, townspeople and tribesmen from the country, civilians and defected soldiers. They frequently bicker among themselves and accuse each other of hoarding weapons.

Some units have lost 70% of their men through casualties and desertion, and ammunition in some cases is so low that soldiers go to battle with one magazine. Others, however, hold stockpiles of brand new RPGs, Austrian-made machine guns and hand grenades, part of a shipment that the fighters say was bought with private money from Syrian donors and delivered by Turkish military intelligence over the border.

There are more weapons and men in the countryside, but many commanders prefer to protect their villages than send their men and weapons to fight in the city.

Meanwhile, the civilians who still make up most of the fighting force and who have carried the burden of fighting for the past 16 months look at officers who have defected recently with suspicion and resentment.

Khalil al-Burdany is a former English teacher who leads one of the main battalions in the town. The morning the Guardian met him, a column of pro-Assad tanks and soldiers had tried to get into the sector held by his battalion in the Umal area to the south of the city. A hundred rebels were scrambled and moved towards the front to help Khalil’s small unit, but when government soldiers started firing mortars and tank rounds, half the men retreated. Only 15 of the reinforcements reached the front, where they stood behind a corner for an hour awaiting orders and then withdrew.

Khalil said: “Some of the battalions are just sitting eating and drinking and others are fighting. I had 50 men in this sector, now I have 23. The rest are dead.

“For 30 days I fought and I lost men every day.” Khalil pointed to a burly major sitting in front of him who had defected a week earlier and continued in English: “This officer, he comes now and wants to become the supreme commander. They still have the Bashar [Assad] mentality and they only defected because they realised that we are winning.” [Continue reading…]

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