Ras al-Ayn and the Specter of the Buffer Zone

By: Marah Mashi

Published Friday, November 16, 2012

The armed Syrian opposition is moving forward with its plan to establish a buffer zone along the border with Turkey, as refugees from the towns of Harem and Ras al-Ayn pour into the northeastern city of Qamishli, bringing with them horror stories of war.

“They think their revolution is the French revolution, conducting public executions for those who were in the Ahmed Can café, claiming the executed were shabiha [pro-regime militias],” said Khadija, who was displaced along with her three children.

After the fall of the Tal Abyad border crossing in the town of al-Raqqa, Ras al-Ayn – also known as Serekani in Kurdish – witnessed fierce battles between Syrian government troops and Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades.

Members of the government army and security forces were executed in public. This was recorded on video and shared widely, showing the ferocity of the battle over the town that dates back to 3,500 BC.

Ras al-Ayn, which once resisted Islamic conquest, could not resist the rebels for long. It fell after government troops ran out of ammunition.

Harem is the latest border town to fall into the hands of the armed opposition. The opposition’s buffer zone is sustained with supply lines from Turkey and even Turkish ambulances that cross the borders to transfer injured FSA soldiers.

Statements issued by the opposition Local Coordinating Committees were boastful, but excitement waned as Syrian warplanes began flying over the town, giving hope to the Syrian army battalion besieged in the Asfar Najjar Palace awaiting reinforcements.

Ras al-Ayn is part of the Hasakah governorate in the al-Jazirah region of Syria between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border, some 115 kilometers from Qamishli. It has an area of around 23 square kilometers and is famous for the abundance of water springs, thus its name, which means source of the spring.

But the city is on the verge of a bloody battle after being emptied of its inhabitants, according to Georges, who was also displaced from Ras al-Ayn to Qamishli.

Georges goes on to describe the massacre of an entire Alawi family that had been taking shelter in his home. It was done in cold blood, he said, while he and his sons pleaded with the killers to spare their guests.

“They torched our home after throwing us out. The bodies of the victims were still inside,” he told Al-Akhbar.

Georges and his family sought refuge with some relatives in Qamishli, but the city is fearful that the violence will spill over.

Dori, a resident of Qamishli, is afraid of “warnings of fighters arriving in the city.”

He said both Abu Rasayn and Ras al-Ayn have been deserted after 30 soldiers were executed in the latter and five of them abducted and taken into Turkey.

“Our relatives from Ras al-Ayn have deserted it after all the of the town’s entrances were boobytrapped and we lost a relative there,” he said.

Georges maintained that “the town fell following the treason of some of its Arab residents, and especially when Kurds loyal to [Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud] Barzani created an enabling environment and sleeper cells that entered the city through Tal Half along with armed men from Turkey.”

Georges said the Syrian government will be responsible for what happens if it does not defend its citizens, adding that the majority of the city’s Arabs, Circassians, Christians, and Kurds remain loyal to the government.

He continued, “The city has been under threat for months. It has been awaiting reinforcements for a whole month, to no avail.”

Both Dori and Georges agree that the greatest tragedy is that the Assyrian Church of St. Asia the Miraculous in Ras al-Ayn is now occupied by armed men, and according to the latest information they received, Syrian regime artillery are shelling FSA positions in the town.

Shiro, a Kurdish farmer from Ras al-Ayn, said he was forced to leave his land after spreading 1 million Syrian Pounds ($14,000) worth of fertilizer, and now fears he has lost everything. He said he rejected requests from FSA members asking him to return, fearing it might be a trap to keep civilians in the town as human shields.

The Serekani office of the Kurdish Syrian Journalist League reported that a Syrian army helicopter flew over Serekani. After identifying FSA locations through radar, it attacked the position of the Ghoraba al-Sham brigade with four missiles, killing one fighter and injuring three.

This was followed by shelling “through heavy artillery of the [FSA] brigade’s position in Asfar Najjar, over several hours.”

Kurdish opposition websites launched a campaign accusing the Syrian army, whose helicopters were shelling FSA positions in the town, of targeting grain silos in Tal Half, which are under the control of the Ghoraba al-Sham brigade. This led to several fires in the silos.

Syrian army artillery at the al-Aliya village checkpoint shelled Tal Half, Asfar Najjar, and the border crossing.

The two most famous local FSA figures are a man known as Mohaimen, the commander of the Ghoraba al-Sham brigade who also owns a restaurant in the town called Bab al-Hara, and the Dissident People’s Assembly member Mohammad al-Helu, who formed a battalion which attacked the police station.

Chaos is spreading throughout the city. Kurdish groups closed some schools after threatening the administrations to either teach Kurdish or be shut down. A YouTube video shows a quarrel between Kurds and FSA members who refused to raise the Kurdish flag alongside the flags of the revolution and of al-Qaeda.

The state is losing support in Ras al-Ayn among residents who feel abandoned, according to refugees from the region. There is also conflicting information about Turkish elements participating in military operations.

The question remains as to whether the air force will be able to route the FSA or whether the armed opposition will succeed in creating their buffer zone.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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