In Syria, siege is test for new rebel order
Harem, Syria, November 8, 2012
Crouching in a tent among the pine trees, two rain-soaked men trace a map in the dirt. A cigarette stub, a rock and a tuna can mark targets amid a scatter of X-marks and arrows.
They might almost be football coaches making a gameplan, but in Syria these men are making war.
Fighters run in from the deluge, yelling for ammunition and transport for the wounded. Thunder rumbles in the distance and blends into bursts of mortar fire.
Shouting over the din, the two commanders debate tactics for taking the town of Harem, which their rebel forces have under siege. How they fare has big implications, not just because the ancient strongpoint on the Turkish border dominates a strategic route to Aleppo, but as a test of opposition efforts to better marshal their untrained and fractious bands of volunteers.
"Basel, listen!" shouted Abu Osama, one of the two leaders at the rain-sodden command post, to fellow rebel commander, Basel Eissa, as they hammer out a coordinated plan for their brigades. "This revolution has been disorganised and random for over a year now. It's time to start focusing our strategies.
"All I hear from the fighters is 'Storm the city! Storm the city!' - before we've secured any territory. I'm sick of this slogan. Hold them back until our units have bombed the targets."
That was nearly two weeks ago, when a Reuters news team began observing the siege of Harem, which began in mid-October. This week, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are holding out in the mediaeval citadel after the rebels drove them from the rest of the town, fighting house to house, street by street.
Sniper fire and air strikes continue to take a toll on the 500 or so besieging rebels who, in reply, offered little quarter to some prisoners - one of whom Reuters saw them shoot dead.
As Assad's opponents and their Western, Arab and Turkish backers meet in Qatar this week seeking elusive unity, Harem shows rebel commanders struggling to forge a single, disciplined force which might ease foreign powers' fear that arms sent to shadowy groups may simply fuel carnage - or even be turned against their donors.
Whether the opposition can succeed, remains unclear. Its political leadership has appeared as divided as ever in Doha, frustrating the hopes of allies like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is pushing for a united approach that gives a strong voice to those "in the front lines fighting and dying".
The fighting at Harem has shown rebels under the guidance of defectors from Assad's army like Abu Osama out-manoeuvring better armed troops. But it also demonstrates the firepower, notably in the air, which Assad is deploying to defend his rule as the 19-month-old conflict, now all-out civil war, grinds on.
Abu Osama, a muscular artillery major who stands tall above his comrades in his tan army boots, joined the battle for Harem as a representative of the Joint Leadership of the Military Councils - a body whose own ultimate command structure is opaque but which says it aims to use funding and weaponry apparently mainly from Gulf states to take charge of the overall rebellion.
Imposing that leadership is not easy. The Councils have met scepticism from some rebels and are flatly rejected by others.
The bands of fighters, recruited from villages or city blocks, or by small political or religious groupings, have been left to their own devices so far; many suspect senior army defectors of corruption and trying to grab power for themselves.
But Harem, whose stone houses clustered under the fortress and surrounded by pomegranate groves are home to about 20,000 people, has provided the Councils and men like Abu Osama with a chance to show them what tactical leadership can provide.
In past months, attempts to rush the defences of a town once garrisoned by Crusader knights did little but add dozens more rebel lives to the tens of thousands lost in a conflict that began in last year's Arab Spring street protests.
Now, with a new plan supervised by trained army officers from the Joint Military Councils, a tightly organised siege is in place. Rebels say new tactics have cut their casualty rate even as Assad's men are fighting for their lives in the castle.
At the rebel command post on a muddy hillside, Abu Osama, the 39-year-old officer from southern Syria, tried to reassure Eissa, 43, an auto parts salesman from the nearby city of Idlib now leading the local fighters of the Idlib Martyrs Brigade:
"You are right that we will not advance quickly, it will be slower. But it will hold," Abu Osama told a frowning Eissa, a father of four with no previous military experience. "We advance by firepower, not manpower. Let's preserve our men's lives."
Below them, however, in the winding alleys of the town, for the men trying to advance along the neat arrows of Abu Osama's map in the dirt, frustration and death were a constant presence.
Pushing towards the citadel, the base for an isolated force of some 400 loyalist soldiers and pro-Assad "shabbiha" militiamen, rebel fighters in a motley collection of camouflage fired their rifles - Kalashnikovs and M-16s - from the cover of street corners; rocket-propelled grenades crashed nearby.
Pinned back by a lethal curtain of sniper fire, rebels used sledgehammers to smash through internal walls between houses to advance under cover from room to room.
Leading from the front, Eissa, a burly man in a floppy black cowboy hat, was constantly wiping concrete dust from his curly beard. His voice is hoarse from shouting orders: "What are you doing?" he barked at two men idling at the back. "We're raiding a new position - join your unit at the front now."
Back up the hill, watching the battle unfold, was Mohammed al-Ali, previously a major in an army engineering unit. He said taking Harem would almost complete the opposition hold on Idlib province, creating a big, anti-Assad bridgehead between Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and supplies coming in from Turkey.
But perhaps more importantly, success here could, he hoped, demonstrate the kind of centralised command structure that would win the confidence of Western and Arab leaders sceptical of the rebels' cohesiveness and fearful they harbour in their ranks Islamist militants inspired by al Qaeda and hostile to the West.
"The Joint Military Councils have begun trying to organise forces under a shared plan, and Harem is the model," said Ali, coordinator for a Council plan to have experienced officers like himself move around the various fronts to improve cooperation, training and specialisation: "We will have artillery units and assault units, anti-aircraft units and raiding units," he said.
The Joint Councils have more than just expertise to rely on. They say they have money, too - enough to offer a small monthly stipend of $150 to fighters in units that accept their command.
Funding for the Councils comes from various states which back the rebels, notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a Syrian exile leader, Burhan Ghalioun, told Reuters in Doha.
In northern Syria, another officer working with the Councils, Bashar Saadeddine, said: "The hope is that a salary will offer an incentive to draw units under our oversight and finally get some order in the ranks."
Among initiatives is an embryonic system of military courts set up to counter the kind of war crimes which have risked giving the opposition as bad a name internationally as Assad.
But like the commanders watching from their hilltop, the reality in the streets of Harem is far removed from such ideals. – Reuters
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