The fight for the strategic city of Maaret al Numan on Syria’s main highway lays bare the challenges faced by the rebels who are fighting the government of Bashar Assad.
Hobbled by a lack of supplies and a confused chain of command, rebels here said Wednesday that they feared they might lose the city without reinforcements and ammunition.
That’s a reversal from a month ago, when at least five groups of fighters coordinated to attack this city from three sides and clear it of army and security forces. They also laid siege to Wadi al Deif, a nearby military base, driving government forces to the eastern side of the highway that runs from Aleppo, the country’s largest city, to Damascus, Syria’s capital.
According to rebel fighters, the operation took less than 24 hours and was followed by a successful attack on a convoy that was approaching the city to resupply the besieged loyalist forces.
“At first we were successful, but then some of the groups left,” a rebel fighter, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said Wednesday. “Some of the groups that were fighting left because they said it was too costly. Others just didn’t have enough ammunition.”
The fighting has indeed been costly. The government’s air force has targeted not just Maaret al Numan but also nearby cities that rebels used as staging grounds. Dozens, if not hundreds, of fighters and civilians have been killed, and the population of the city, about 150,000, has largely fled under the onslaught. Entire districts lie in rubble, and bodies remain underneath. Cleanup is possible only after dark, when the airstrikes stop.
“We worked all night but we couldn’t get her out. She is 4 years old,” one fighter said, pointing to the top of a child’s head poking out of the rubble of a building.
The rebel ran for cover a few minutes later as a jet flew low overhead and fired at a building a few streets away.
Fighter jets flew regular sorties over the city Wednesday morning and into the early afternoon as tanks and artillery on the eastern side of the highway lobbed shells.
Rebel fighters said the shelling was heavier than usual and that it coincided with an advance by government troops, who were attempting to cross back to the western side of the highway.
“If we could keep them from resupplying the base for even two days, they would give up,” the fighter said. “But they have been able to keep it supplied.”
He lamented the lack of rebel supplies coming in from outside Syria, despite what he described as rebel commanders’ frequent trips there.
“We may have to consider withdrawing,” he said.
Haithem Afisi, a defected army colonel who leads a local battalion of fighters who were using a museum in the city as a base, said his group was officially part of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group headquartered in Syria. He answers to the Idlib military council, which directs Free Syrian Army operations in Idlib province, where Maaret al Numan is.
Two other groups that were key to the rebels’ taking of Maaret al Numan fall outside the Free Syrian Army – the Syrian Martyrs Brigade and The Hawks of Damascus Brigade – and coordination with them can be spotty.
Many Free Syrian Army fighters also have been forced to use the meager salary they received for the first time this month – about $150 each – to buy ammunition.
Outside the city, residents sat on blankets and drank tea in what’s become a daily routine: They leave the city at dawn, when the fighting begins, and return after dark, when the airstrikes generally stop. They often simply spread blankets under the trees by the side of the road.
“We could stay in our houses when it was just shelling,” one woman said. “But with the airstrikes, no building is safe.”
“They say they are targeting terrorists, but what about airplanes? Are they distinguishing between children and terrorists? There are a large number of children who have died in the past two days,” said Umm Abdo, who identified herself with a nickname that means “mother of Abdo” in Arabic. She sat on a blanket under a stand of trees as her five children played nearby. They’ve fled their home many times, she said.
“My niece was killed,” she said. “My cousins were killed. We were in (a town nearby) and in a school, and they targeted the school and many people were killed and wounded,” she said.
Umm Abdo said her house was destroyed 10 days ago, and that she and her family now stayed in the empty apartments of neighbors who’d fled more permanently. As she spoke, a jet could be seen strafing a rebel position less than half a mile away.
“At least if we stay here, we have the hope of going back to Maaret al Numan,” she said, rejecting the idea of fleeing over Syria’s northern border to Turkey, where about 100,000 Syrians are housed in refugee camps run by the Turkish government. Thousands more remain on the Syrian side of the border, prevented from entering Turkey by Turkish soldiers.