Al-Rastan: A City Struggling Against Division
By: Radwan Mortada
Published Tuesday, June 19, 2012
In Al-Rastan, regime loyalists and opponents live side by side. They are governed by an undeclared truce - a truce that has recently begun to reel as a result of concerns among opposition fighters that the regime is pushing its opponents to group in the city as a prelude to annihilating them.
The city of Al-Rastan does not much resemble other Syrian regions. The city has witnessed two military battles, which it endured for several days before falling, with dozens of casualties on both sides. Both times, the Syrian army stormed the city before subsequently withdrawing, and after each battle, opposition forces would recuperate and then regroup.
The most prominent factions in the city are the Men of God Brigade and the Ali bin Abi Talib Battalion, led by First Lieutenant Fayez Abdullah. Add to these the group led by the defected officer Abdul Razak Talas, which has recently entered the city with around only one hundred fighters – albeit well-armed. There are also various other groups operating independently of these factions.
What is unique about Al-Rastan is the make-up of the city’s residents. Here, the regime loyalists and opponents live side by side. This state of affairs is reinforced by bonds of kinship and affinity among most of the residents. In this city, currently controlled by the opposition, both regime loyalists and opponents are free to enter and leave without either side being hassled by the other. Beyond this, the city boasts the largest number of defected officers: From the city itself, which has a population of approximately 65,000, there are about 1,560 officers serving in the regime’s army, including the head of the Military Security Branch. These are met on the opposing side by about 90 defected officers, most notably the commander of the central region in the Men of God Brigade, Colonel Qassim Saadeddine, in addition to the president of the Military Academy, who has the rank of staff brigadier. Yet despite this mix, they live together in great harmony and peace.
Opposition sources in Al-Rastan who spoke to Al-Akhbar said that loyalist army officers can safely enter and leave the city. Reports also indicate that an undeclared truce is in place among the residents, but they note that the truce has begun to give way. In truth, the portends of its collapse began to appear when a group affiliated with Abdul Razak Talas kidnapped an army colonel and forced him to announce his defection in front of a camera.
At the same time, the Syrian opposition has gathered information that points to a systematic plan being implemented by the regime forces to eliminate opposition fighters, citing limited security operations meant to push the opposition in the areas around Homs into Al-Rastan, and the fact that residents in the city who support the regime have started to leave. Some in the opposition are therefore expecting a fierce battle in the next few days, quoting sources in the regime as saying that as soon as all loyalists leave, the entire city will be put under siege in preparation for an attack.
The opposition activists have begun preparations for the confrontation. The group led by First Lieutenant Fayez Abdullah has reportedly staged attacks against several checkpoints set up by the regime, while an airbase was attacked near Al-Rastan. There are opposition groups reporting a sense of edginess in the city as a result of what is happening there, alluding to sporadic clashes among groups that have entered the city to seize control of it.
According to leaders in the Syrian opposition, following the first storming of the city and then the withdrawal of the army, they began digging up the asphalt from the roads and planting explosives beneath various points that the armored vehicles of the army may use to enter the city. However, the regime then surprised them by bombing all roads, practically setting the city on fire, before its troops moved in without any trouble.
The city of Al-Rastan fell twice, despite the fact that the opposition was armed and despite the resistance it put up. Now, efforts are underway and preparations are in full swing to prevent the city from falling for a third time. Meanwhile, the morale of the fighters is very low, as they prepare for massacres that they anticipate will take place.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.