Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, June 21st, 2011
I asked a friend who joined the organized Foreign Press Corps visit to Jisr al-Shaghour to tell me what his take was on the visit. This is his account:
We got a tour of the place with lots of press. The story is that the Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) garrison was attacked and seized over the course of about 36 hours between 4 and 5 June. 500 “armed criminals” attacked. The detachment, about 72 people, was overrun when they ran out of ammo. The condition of the place was pretty consistent with an armed attack, though I don’t think it lasted that long and I think the garrison likely surrendered. The insurgents then took over the city, looting several gov’t buildings, esp the Palace of Justice and burning the files there, esp the criminal investigation records. These buildings were extensively damaged. No evidence of real damage in the rest of the town – I don’t think the military took it by force. They just rolled in.
There are people returning – we saw a convoy of what we were told was refugees returning from Turkey, waving Syrian flags and photos of the President. The city is still pretty devoid of people, but there are some shops open and people in the streets. They seem to get along with the soldiers, but that could have been staged for our benefit.
We also were taken to a mass grave of the dead from the SMI garrison. The story is the dead SMI soldiers were taken by the rebels and buried in several areas, to include the town dump. A local resident who operates a bucket loader was forced by the rebels to dig the graves. He was there to tell his story to us. The bodies I saw were military age males and looked like they had been dead about two weeks.
They tell us the “rebels” are a mix of criminals (smugglers mostly) and Salafists, and are from the local area, using lots of Turkish weapons and ammo. No implication the Turkish gov’t is supplying them.
I think the event happened, more or less. I also think our trip was stage-managed, with lots of press, and they waited for us to get there to pull the bodies out.
There is a big military presence in the north. It is hard to say what is going on in the rest of that area.
There are two parallel narratives going on. There are peaceful protestors (I saw them in Hama last Friday), and there is an armed insurgency in the north of the country. There may well be one around Daraa as well. How the government deals with both separately will determine where we go from here. The president acknowledged the peaceful protests in his speech, so that is something. But people in Hama told me there is no going back. They won’t negotiate. Maybe that is just talk, but they sound pretty determined.
Hope this helps….
Here is Adrian Blomfield of the Telegraph’s account of the visit: Northern Syria deserted thanks to scorched earth campaign
Addendum: See this report by the BBC, Syria crisis: Investigating Jisr al-Shughour, which adds some interest detail and context.