The Threefold Siege on Syria’s Harem
By: Marah Mashi
Published Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Latakia - “We’re holding on to our last bullets like we’re holding on to our lives.” These were the words of a Syrian soldier on combat duty in Harem, as he and his comrades desperately await the arrival of supplies and reinforcements needed to enable them to hold out in the embattled northern border town.
Harem has been under siege for months, while the state media have been busy broadcasting cooking recipes and morning chat shows in a bid to project a semblance of the normalcy that Syrians have not sensed for a long time. With a predominantly pro-regime population, the town has borne the brunt of the fighting raging in Idlib province, most of which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), for which the inhabitants provide an overwhelmingly supportive environment.
The fiercest fighting has been taking place at the entrance to the town. The armed opposition controls the area completely, preventing the Syrian army from advancing due to the presence of large numbers of civilians amongst whom the FSA fighters are dispersed.
The army’s combat plan relied on trying to force the fighters, who include both Syrian army deserters and foreign combatants of various nationalities, to congregate so they could be bombed from the air by Sukhoi-22 jets. There was an 80 percent hit-rate.
Then Turkish supplies to the rebels enabled them to prevent the Syrian soldiers from entering Harem, especially after a plane that was sent to resupply them made a mistake and its cargo ended up in FSA hands. Local people and soldiers alike wonder where it really was a mistake. But nobody is giving them answers. The country is supposed to be experiencing a truce that was violated before it began, and the noise from the explosions rocking the capital is sure to drown out the appeals for relief coming from the remote north.
Professional snipers are positioned atop the minarets of mosques filled with the displaced women and children of Harem. That is what makes bombing such a difficult option. It would entail sacrificing the civilians who appealed to the army for help after their local popular committees struggled to fend off an attack by rebels supported by foreign jihadis launched from the neighboring village of Salqeen.
While the FSA wounded are transported across the border to Turkey in ambulances, dozens of Syrian soldiers died of their injuries due to the shortage of supplies and because they could not be given adequate treatment.
Troops also apprehended three British journalists in the area who were carrying what they suspected was sophisticated surveillance equipment.
Some 4,000 of Harem’s civilian residents have taken refuge in the town’s historic fortress, raising fears of a massacre if it comes under bombardment by the opposition, which is known to have been supplied with Turkish-made short-range missiles and launchers mounted on four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as an abundance of mortars.
Accounts of the protracted siege on civilians in the fortress are like tales from ancient history. It is hard to believe such events are taking place in Syria today. The lightly-armed popular committees, whose only sin is that their political outlook differs from that of the majority in the district, are besieged by rebel battalions, who in turn are besieged by Syrian soldiers, who are themselves under siege, running out of weapons and heir appeals for relief going unheeded.
The FSA batallions withdrew to the fringes of Harem while holding on to some enclaves inside the town after mounting an attack on the local headquarters of the political security section, which was repulsed by security forces and army units that were withdrawn from Salqeen to join in the defense of Harem. Dozens of people, including civilians, were killed.
And while the ground troops may have been let down, Syrian pilots have been in action, employing two Sukhois and available helicopters, against suspected rebel supply points on the border. Harem exemplifies the undeclared war that is actually underway between Syria and Turkey.
“We are counting our remaining bullets on our fingers. There have been many martyrs,” said the soldier, waiting along with 88 others, in addition to members of the security forces, for reinforcements.
He believes the assault on Harem is aimed at creating a fresh supply route from Turkey for the rebels, after fighting between the army and FSA cut off the route north of Aleppo.
Dozens of people were killed in Harem’s al-Tarmeh neighborhood after it was subject to a missile bombardment from a Turkish police station, amid appeals for the Syrian leadership to come to the rescue of the town’s remaining inhabitants. There have been reports of the Syrian army making advances in fierce clashes underway in the village of Darkoush between FSA brigades and army reinforcements that were sent to Harem from Jisr al-Shughour.
The situation became so desperate that one member of the security forces pretended to want to defect to the rebels, only to blow himself up on reaching the FSA checkpoint, causing dozens of casualties.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.