Damascus: The Battle for the Hinterland

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A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba 27 January 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Ahmed Jadallah)

By: Tarek Abd al-Hayy

Published Friday, January 27, 2012

For the first time since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, defectors have managed to secure a strong presence in several towns in the Damascene countryside, including Zabadani, Harasta, Douma, Kafr Batna, and Arbin.

Damascus – Recent clashes in the province of Damascus Countryside between army defectors, also known as the Free Syrian Army, and regular forces have brought talk of the “militarization” of the Syrian protests to the forefront.

While there have been similar incidents in the provinces of Homs, Hama and Idlib, they take on added importance in the capital's rural hinterland with its dense and diverse population.

Speculation is rife that the army is poised to launch a decisive large-scale operation aimed at regaining control of these cities, for fear that they could become a military access-points to the capital itself.

It all began with Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, long known as a tourist destination along with neighboring towns Bloudan, Madaya and Sargaya. These days it is a destination for two other groups: locals returning to check things out after the defectors took over, and Damascenes who own property in Zabadani.

The road into Zabadani that branches off from the main Damascus-Beirut highway seems deserted. The driver explains that several incidents took place nearby which made people reluctant to venture out. These included the bombing of a vehicle carrying a number of soldiers in Saboura.

The driver does not respond when asked about the perpetrators. He remains silent for the rest of the trip.

Straddling the road into Zabadani is Madaya, known to Damascenes as the place to buy smuggled goods from Lebanon. Life seems normal there, with no military presence except at the entrances.

At the army checkpoint, we are asked for our IDs, where we’ve come from, and the reason for our visit. Further on, past Barada Spring, army tanks are stationed at a camp for the Baath Vanguards, the ruling party’s youth organization.

It is completely different inside Zabadani. As you enter the town, you no longer feel you are in the same Syria. "We have overthrown the regime" locals proclaim. They say that they now take to the freezing streets every night to protest, protected by army defectors who surround the demonstrators to safeguard against any attacks by the security forces.

Life continues as normal in many respects. People go out walking, and children attend school. Some residents have hoisted the “independence flag” as they call it, rather than the current national flag. There is a strong sense of triumph among local people, mixed with fear that the army might mount a major operation to regain control.

One local activist, requesting anonymity, explains that the security forces retreated from Zabadani. They pulled out their armor and requested a truce after being under pressure from guerrilla-style attacks carried out by armed groups based in the surrounding mountains.

Prior to that, according to the activist, protesters regularly came under fire from the security forces, even when members of the Arab League Observer Mission visited the town. He says that when the observers arrived, accompanied by security forces, carloads of thugs drove around town, staging a show of support for the regime and calling for a decisive military and security crackdown.

Once the observers left, the shooting resumed and intensified, and soon local armed groups began firing back. For two days, locals retreated to their homes while the gunmen on both sides battled it out in the streets. Finally, the security forces opted to retreat and call for the withdrawal of all military forces. They are now deployed on the outskirts of Zabadani, Sargaya and Madaya, while armed rebels patrol the mountains for fear of an incursion. There have been indications that the army might attack from the south, or even via Lebanese territory.

There are occasional attempts by the security forces to target the armed groups, particularly at night, leading to skirmishes, which usually result in the security forces unleashing a hail of gunfire to cover their retreat.

But the activist stresses that people feel much safer now after the withdrawal of security forces from the streets. This has encouraged growing numbers of people to go out and protest on a daily basis. Goods that were previously scarce, such as diesel and gas, are also more readily available.

“Zabadani today is virtually under the control of the armed groups,” he says. “The security forces are positioned in the surrounding areas, but nevertheless, the people of this region are saying: ‘We have been liberated.’”

The situation differs in towns closer to the Syrian capital – namely Harasta, Douma, Arbine, Kafr Batna and Rankous – where the army moved in on Thursday, days after gunmen had succeeded in taking control of them.

Checkpoints are deployed at the entrances to Harasta, on the northeastern fringe of the capital. This has made it difficult to enter and even harder, to leave the town. Inside, only security vehicles can be seen on the streets.

There have been reports of a widespread campaign of arrests and raids in Harasta, including reports of houses being forcibly evacuated and either demolished on the grounds that they were used for dissident activity, or taken over as security positions. Also, there have been reports of snipers being positioned on rooftops. They shoot at any moving target, particularly in the direction of Douma and Qaboun, which activists say are witnessing similar "hysterical" crackdowns.

According to a member of the local coordinating committee, armed groups began deploying in Harasta days ago in order to protect protesters. They erected barricades to block the entry of security forces, who remained on the outskirts. This encouraged large numbers of people to take to the streets to demonstrate or attend the funerals of martyrs. Moreover, unprecedented calls were made from some mosque minarets, urging anyone with a weapon to confront the army and security forces. Hundreds of locals, many of whom own guns to protect their farmland, came forward to volunteer for the Free Army, the activists says.

Another activist, a member of the coordination committee in Arbin, expects the armed groups to step up their attacks, especially at night when the security forces find it hard to respond.

He sees the prospect of armed groups gaining control in Damascus’ rural hinterland as signalling the beginning of the end of the regime. It has prompted many regime supporters to demand a decisive “iron first military operation to destroy all armed gangs. But this would be self-defeating, the activist argues. Targeting the gunmen would result in greater civilian casualties, weakening the regime’s international position, perhaps even forcing its allies to abandon it.

Yet at the same time, the regime cannot afford to just let defections from the army increase while gunmen establish themselves on the fringes of the capital, from where they could launch a repeat of the Libyan rebels’ march on Tripoli.

Further to the northwest, a similar scene prevails in Yabrud and Jarajir in the Kalamoun region. Both towns were raided earlier this week by troops reinforced by units dispatched from Nabak and Damascus. The Kalamoun mountains might provide a safe refuge for gunmen, albeit at some distance from the capital (70 kilometers). They are also the scene of occasional night-time gunfights between customs police and smugglers.

But unlike in the towns, there are no military checkpoints on the main Damascus-Homs highway that passes through the area. Life there seems almost normal, until we reach Homs, where the roadblocks begin. Traffic to and from the capital nevertheless remains limited, with many Syrians possibly fearing security operations, explosions or clashes, a fear that is likely to extend for some time to come.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


OK, I get it. The picture is the same as in the Misrata a year ago (at least by the media). Just to look into Misrata NOW and see what does it mean. Torture anyone?

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