By: Robert Asher, Photo by: Andreas Stahl
October 24, 2012
The small Syrian town of Harem sits on a hillside just 5 km from the Turkish border. The Idlib Martyrs Brigade has chosen this town as the site of their latest offensive against the Syrian Army and its brutal Shabiha militia.
Strategically, Harem is of vital importance to the FSA for resupply from, and medical evacuation to Turkey. Wounded rebels are whisked from the front line, through the olive groves and peach orchards that stretch from Harem to the border, to Ambulances that wait on the Turkish side. For the Syrian Army, Harem provides the advantage of high ground, its location enables shelling and monitoring of FSA positions over a great distance. The Army has made an extensive effort to secure the town, Mohanned al Issa – Deputy Commander of the Idlib Martyrs Brigade “Harem is not like other places, the majority of the enemy forces are Shabiha. It appears to be the heart of the Shabiha forces in Idlib”.
The Turkish border city of Reyhanli, less than 10 km away, has become a key staging point for the FSA. Wounded fighters are given access to Turkish medical services, while weapons are discretely smuggled across. Turkish border stations have equipped themselves with tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, prepared to shoot down any Syrian army helicopters that advance too close. This provides a welcome advantage to the rebels, who’s base camp for this operation is nestled in the hills that rise above Reyhanli, within eyesight of both a Turkish border station and the town of Harem.
The Brigade claims to have enlisted a force of 1200 fighters for this battle, up against a Syrian Army / Shabiha force of an estimated 1600. However, only a few dozen rebels were ever seen, and even less opposing forces. Fighting in Harem has taken on a cat and mouse nature, with fighters moving from building to building through holes in walls created by explosives and tank fire from the previous day. The town has become a labyrinth, with fighting so close that the knife has become essential.
In the town, now largely empty, 3 Syrian army tanks sit abandoned, piecemeal victories proudly claimed by the FSA. The deafening sound of at least one more tanks’ rounds being fired can be heard at regular intervals throughout the day. Proceeding each round, a massive barrage of return machine gun fire and rpg rockets are discharged by the rebels. Issa “No one is here to support us, and no one is going to help us. We take our weapons from the regime, and now we have tanks”.
At a school previously occupied by the Syrian Army as a headquarters and weapons depot, evidence of the Assad regimes methods for indoctrinating the youth can be found in lesson books scattered amid the absolute chaos of war. Exercises animated with images of Bashar Assad educating children mix with blood splattered walls, discarded ammunition crates, upturned furniture, and destroyed computers. Documents of the Army’s plans to defend the city lay discarded, evidence of the Brigades most recent success. A lone rebel tasked with securing this strategic gain, sits and calmly drinks tea in the hall.
Shabiha snipers, perched on the rooftop of another school on the east of town, and high atop the minarets of a mosque, actively target journalists attempting to cover the story, as one unfortunately learned after being wounded by shrapnel from a dum-dum exploding round. The rebels may have been fighting the much better equipped Assad forces for over a year now, but confidence remains extremely high, despite regularly suffering heavy loses. The propaganda war may be the last battle Assad can afford to loose.
With the sighting of the Eid moon, both sides continued to engage each other with a relentless ferocity. The Idlib Martyrs Brigade is a force primarily consisting of Sunni Muslims, but free from any form of strict religious ideology. They proudly spoke of creating a Syria where all are free to worship as they wish, with a secular, inclusive government in Damascus.
As of 11pm on October 28th, the last remaining hold out for Assad’s forces in Harem is the ancient fortress on the southern edge of town. Basel Issa, The Brigade Commander, announced “All civilian areas of Harem are now free. The Army has fled, and sweep operations are underway to capture all remaining Shabiha”. Units have been assigned to provide security to returning civilians, and assist with the restoration of school and local government offices. The Brigade now moves onward to Fou’a, another Shabiha stronghold in the Idlib countryside.