Syrian Opposition Militants Holed Up in Krak des Chevaliers “Waiting for their Turn”

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A rebel fighter poses for a picture inside a building in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 9, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Abdel Rahman)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The militants occupying Krak des Chevaliers, the famed crusader castle between Homs and the Mediterranean coast, are anxiously following the battles in the town of Zara, as if they are waiting for their turn to come.

Syrian and Lebanese militants have spoken to Al-Akhbar about their daily lives there, about what they say is a famine lurking around the corner, and what they call “merchants of blood,” in reference to war profiteers. Field commanders also spoke about the stages of the confrontation and the weapons used by both sides, but said, “Any settlement would be a betrayal of religion and the land.”

Qalaat al-Husn, or Krak des Chevaliers, the most prominent stronghold of the armed Syrian opposition in the countryside surrounding Tal Kalakh, comes under daily shelling. Battles are raging in the nearby town of Zara, where explosive barrels are dropped on its inhabitants, both civilians and combatants. But the story of the “opposition’s fort,” where nearly 3,500 people are holed up, began many months ago.

The castle has been under siege by the Syrian army for nearly a year and a half. But for several reasons, it seems that Krak des Chevaliers acts like a magnet for militants originating from North Lebanon.

For instance, the commander of one of the most notorious Salafi groups stationed at the castle is Lebanese national Khaled al-Mahmoud, who is also known as Abu Suleiman al-Muhajir. Mahmoud was previously incarcerated in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison for his involvement with the terrorist group Fatah al-Islam. Dozens of Lebanese men have since joined him for “jihad” against the “Nusairi (Alawi) regime.”

Abu Khaled (a pseudonym), one of the Lebanese militants fighting in Syria, told Al-Akhbar that he had joined the fight with the start of the uprising in Syria, saying that his motive was “jihad to defend Muslims being killed by the oppressors.”

The thirty-something man, who is from the Bab al-Tabbaneh district of Tripoli, said that at first, he joined Sheikh Walid al-Bustani, who is from the same neighborhood, and who would later be killed by militants from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Abu Khaled also said that he moved frequently between Lebanon and Syria, but that he was cut off from Lebanon for months following an ambush that killed 21 Lebanese jihadis in Tal Kalakh in late 2012.

Abu Khaled’s motive also applies to Abu Uday, a young man in his twenties who, together with five of his friends, has joined the militants in Krak des Chevaliers. Abu Uday hails from the Lebanese border town of Mashta Hammoud. Several months ago, he married a Syrian woman at the castle.

He said that, like others, he is defending his people and his religion against an infidel regime that is killing his coreligionists. He told Al-Akhbar that his brother was killed by Assad’s forces as he tried to slip out of the castle, and said, “The majority of Lebanese at the castle are fighting with the group Jund al-Sham.”

Regarding the number of Lebanese fighting alongside the Syrian opposition holed up in Krak des Chevaliers, Abu Uday put them at no more than 300. In addition to religious motives for joining the fight, Abu Uday said that there were also motives related to the kinship between people in the villages of Wadi Khaled and those in Tal Kalakh on the Syrian side.

Also speaking to Al-Akhbar, field commander Ahmad al-Masri said that the siege of the castle has proceeded in two stages. He continued, “The first stage began by cordoning off all entrances to the castle with checkpoints, while roads were blocked by the residents of pro-regime villages.”

The man, who is suffering from a knee injury, pointed out, “The road to the village of Zara al-Turkmanieh remained open, allowing us to use it for basic supplies during that stage.” The village in question is about six kilometers from Krak des Chevaliers. Al Masri added, “The Syrian army deployed artillery batteries to target cars passing between Zara and the castle, limiting our ability to move through it except at night.”

As for the second stage of the siege, the field commander said, “It started in Ramadan seven months ago, when the army tried to storm the Burj area in Zara, to create a wedge between the castle and Zara.”

Masri said that the rebels repelled the attack, but that in response, the Syrian army closed the Zara road, “which was the last remaining lifeline for the two villages.” He then continued, “In the first and second months, people used up all the supplies and medicines they had, as the situation deteriorated slowly. Now, there is a complete dependence on smuggled food and weapons.”

Abu Riad al-Homsi, a spokesperson for the Ahrar Qalaat al-Husn Brigade, spends his time between coordinating media activities and caring for the wounded. Currently, he said, he is preparing a report about the “suffering of the castle’s occupants.” According to Homsi, “the wounded are as good as dead because of the lack of medical supplies.”

Smugglers and War Profiteers

There are endless stories about smugglers who are needed whenever the siege intensifies.

The militants in Krak des Chevaliers enumerate the checkpoints that the National Defense Forces have erected to tighten the blockade on the castle. They said, “Symptoms of malnutrition began to appear on people, like skin eczema, swollen faces and hands, dizziness and fainting.” As a result, they said, six elderly people have died, of which they named two men called Abu Amin al-Zobi and Mohammad Abboud respectively.

The militants say that the sustained shelling has so far killed 160 people, and wounded scores others. One of the militants, who declined to be named, told Al-Akhbar, “Trying to help the wounded now costs us thousands of dollars,” and pointed out that they now have to pay the smugglers large sums of money to take the injured to Lebanon.

The cost of moving each wounded person is about $2000, according to the militants. He then added, “The only thing abundant here are the war profiteers. We even bribed Syrian army officers to facilitate the passage of food, medicine, and sometimes the wounded.”

A medic working at Krak des Chevaliers also spoke to Al-Akhbar. He said, “There is a field hospital in the castle but there is a shortage of medical equipment and drugs, which have been nearly all used up after the siege was tightened.” The medic added, “The crew at the hospital is doing its best, but most of the injuries end in death because it is not possible to carry out surgery with the lack of equipment and qualified doctors.”

The Balance of Power

Since the start of the battles in Zara, the shelling on Krak des Chevaliers has intensified. Militants inside say that they come under daily bombardment from artillery batteries and rocket launchers in the surrounding villages.

Despite this, militants say that morale is high. Some of them revealed that they have armored vehicles, which they had seized from the army during the fighting. The militants confirmed that there was no shortage of ammunition, as they had been able to store them in large quantities throughout the past months.

Regarding the progress of the battles, one militant said, “The men are fighting valiantly because they know that if this area falls to the regime, then we will have no foothold anywhere in it because of the sectarian composition of the region.”

According to the militants as well, the Syrian army has brought warplanes and helicopters more than 10 days ago, and has been using them to drop explosive barrels. They said, “One barrel fell on a home, killing six people and injuring 11, all civilians,” which allegedly took place on Sunday.

The Syrian army, they continued, has been using mortar shells, and said, “During the last campaign, around 40 of us perished.” The militants at the castle said that their equipment consisted mainly of automatic rifles, machine guns, and mortars, in addition to a few tanks that were all seized from the Syrian army. One of the things that can be counted on to be in their favor, they claimed, was “the mountainous terrain and fortifications we have built since the start of the uprising, in addition to trenches, foxholes, and caves.”

The militants here say that they prefer death over humiliation, and refuse to lay down their arms. They said, “The regime forces repeatedly tried through mediators to make a deal with us, but we refused. We will never accept a deal, because this would be a betrayal of religion and the land.”

Three Factions at Krak des Chevaliers

Those who spoke to Al-Akhbar declined to mention the number of militants present inside the castle, but they all agreed that there were three main factions defending it: the Ahrar Qalaat al-Husn Brigade, the Tal Kalakh Martyrs Brigade, and Jund al-Sham – which has both Syrian and Lebanese fighters.

One of those in charge of propaganda in the castle said, “The majority of the Lebanese who fight under Jund al-Sham are from the border regions.” But he too declined to mention their number, saying Lebanese fighters in the castle were no more than a few hundred.

Follow Radwan Murtada on Twitter | @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Let's get serious folks. This is a complete whitewash and an attempt to create the illusion of viability.
Who can claim that the morale within the diseased fortress is high?
The article has the ominous phrase within the title that gives it all away, "waiting for their turn". Waiting for death and defeat by the sound of it. The uninvited guests own words admit that they are ready to die rather than give up. I imagine many, many will die and that many, many will surrender once the more delusional have been killed.
The only thing high about these guys is a result of the mind-altering drug Captagon that they abuse daily!

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