Posted by Joshua on Friday, November 30th, 2012
The Struggle for Abu Kamal: Peace after Defeating the Dictator’s Forces
Asaad al-Saleh, an Assist. Prof. at the University of Utah.
Located on the bank of the Euphrates near the borders with Iraq, Abu Kamal, the city and its towns, has been an active participant in the revolution. The first significant demonstration was as early as 22 April 2011. This YouTube video shows people chanting with slogans intended as an affront to the regime. Shoes are thrown on a concrete portrait of Hafez al-Assad, as demonstrators gather in the center of the city. In the early stage of the uprising, repeated news of the demonstrations in Abu Kamal and other Syrian cities began to embarrass the regime’s media, particularly when Aljazeera and Alarabiya began to cover the protest in this traditionally neglected area. At that point, the government pretended that there was only a “crisis,” rather than a full-blown revolution, and people were not protesting against al-Assad’s rule. Abu Kamal, just like other restive areas, was slightly covered by the Syrian news agency, SANA.
Eventually, the army was sent to the city to quell the increasing protest. After initially cheering for the soldiers, hoping that the soldiers would either restrain from targeting civilians or, even better, defect, the residents of Abu Kamal gradually showed resistance to the presence of the army in their area. The last army stationed in Abu Kamal was the colonial French force. Yet, this foreign force was kicked out of Abu Kamal after a feud with the Uqaidat tribe that caused the death of French soldiers and, in retaliation, the chief of the tribe.
When both the rebels and the regime’s forces were fighting inside the city, the latter were overwhelmed by fighters who knew how to maneuver inside the area. The rebels destroyed many of the army’s vehicles and forced the soldiers to take shelter outside but still close to the city. For more than ten months, the regime was continuously shooting at commercial and residential areas, forcing almost all residents to leave the city and move either to the towns or to cross the borders to Iraq as refugees.
The regime’s last resort (to achieve almost nothing beyond destruction) was to use its air force to shell the city and some of the towns. One of the towns that were targeted by the military jets was al-Jalaa, the birthplace of the defected Syrian ambassador to Iraq and one of the Ugaidat’s leading figures, Nawaf al-Fares. Raids were launched almost daily from September 2012, mounting to 70 raids by 14 November, according to the official Facebook page representing the Local Coordination in Abu Kamal. The regime used heavy artillery against civilians and more than 1,000 mortars landed in the city. The bases for these attacks were the security headquarters and the only airport in the city, Hamdan airport. The rebels attempted to take over the heavily secured airport in early September of 2012, but were unsuccessful and some of them fell in the assault. Since then, they were preparing themselves to capture the airport and to terminate this center of regime’s power and destruction.
On 8 November 2012, the regime’s security headquarters, called the “security square” by the rebels, became under siege. This fortified area included the public hospital, where snipers were located, the military recruiting center, and the military intelligence building. Two days later, air raids showered the city to prevent the besieging rebels from taking over these bases. These raids left 16 people dead, five of them were women. On Thursday 15 November 2012, the rebels finally liberated the security square and downed a helicopter; but lost three fighters in the operation. The next and last important target was the Hamdan airport, which fell in their hands on Saturday 17 November. The regime’s soldiers and officers in the airport fled into the dessert, leaving behind them the last base of the regime in Abu Kamal. Freeing the airport was the bloodiest encounter for rebels, who lost 15 men. The casualties were from Abu Kamal and the towns’ participants, and one of the fallen heroes was from the town of al-Salhiya and is a relative to the author. Since then, peace returned to Abu Kamal and the regime did not (maybe could not) attack it again.
The advantages of liberating the airport and removing the regime’s forces from Abu Kamal are many but here are the most important ones. Since the fall of the airport, Abu Kamal did not witness any more air strikes, a situation that saved many lives and will allow more fighters to regroup and move to the other few areas under the control of the regime in Dayr al-Zour. Many of Abu Kamal’s fighters have appeared on videos addressing al-Assad by this warning: “Do not leave, we will come to you in Damascus.” This might be a serious threat if rebels across the country free their areas and start moving to the capital. Additionally, according to Professor Juan Cole in his blog Informed Comment, there is an economic factor that should be noted when considering the liberation of Abu Kamal:
“70% of the goods coming into Syria were coming from the Iraq of PM Nouri al-Maliki, who had refused to join a blockade of Syria because of his new alliance with Iran. But al-Maliki’s attitude is irrelevant if the revolutionaries have Abu Kamal. This development is a nightmare for the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, since it is fighting a low-intensity struggle with its Sunnis, who predominant in the areas abutting Syria. If Sunni fundamentalists in the FSA hook up with their Iraqi counterparts, that is trouble for al-Maliki and Iran. And, Iraqi Sunnis can now more freely export arms and goods to their Syrian co-religionists.”(Juan Cole).
Even though “70% of the goods” may be too good to be true—as the eastern Syrian region and its borders with Iraq have been out of government’s control since last year—any future trade with Iraq before the fall of al-Assad would be hard to imagine when this area is controlled by the revolutionaries. Professor Cole’s allusion to the Shia/Sunni binary can be seen within the context of Westerners magnifying these sectarian divisions when, at least in the completely Sunni Abu Kamal, people still emphasize that the fight is against al-Assad not his sect. More to the point, there were no reliable reports that Sunni Iraqi fighters assisted the FSA fighters in Abu Kamal.
The peace that Abu Kamal enjoys now is due to the operations that liberated it from the regime’s military and security presence, particularly after its airport was neutralized. If there is one lesson to be learned from liberating Abu Kamal, it is that a no-fly zone is urgently needed. Such a no-fly zone will save many lives and this will mean that the regime cannot kill more civilians and that the FSA, from all over Syrian cities and towns, will continue to remove al-Assad from Damascus.
News Round Up Follows
To Retrieve Attack Helicopters from Russia, Syria Asks Iraq for Help, Documents Show
Pro publica, by Michael Grabell, Dafna Linzer, and Jeff Larson, Nov. 29, 2012
In late October, Syria asked Iraqi authorities to grant air access for a cargo plane transporting refurbished attack helicopters from Russia, according to flight records obtained by ProPublica. With Turkish and European airspace off limits to Syrian arms shipments, the regime of Bashar al-Assad needs Iraq’s air corridor to get the helicopters home, where the government is struggling to suppress an uprisingIraq regained control of its airspace from the U.S. military just a year ago and has been under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States to isolate the Syrian regime. Turkey says it has closed its airspace to Syrian flights, and if Iraq did so, Syria would be virtually cut off from transporting military equipment by plane. European Union sanctions have already constricted arms transport by sea and air.
But it is unclear whether Iraq permitted the fly-overs described in the documents. The Syrian cargo plane scheduled to pick up the helicopters did not land or take off from Moscow at the appointed times this month, suggesting that those flights did not happen…..
….Omar Abu Laila, a spokesman for the rebel fighters in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, said communications have been down for so long there that the new disruptions will have no impact. “The communication outage did not affect us,” he said. “You should report that we’re happy the rest of Syria joined us.”
I hope — I hope we don’t get there because military intervention is an — at best, at very best, a very, very risky thing. You don’t want an Iraq, an intervention like Iraq. You don’t want the intervention ala Afghanistan. You don’t want an intervention ala Libya. And I think — I really think you don’t need that because in the present circumstances, you will have that outside of the Security Council because you are not going to have a resolution that will allow military intervention. That’s out of the question for the moment. So you’ll have to do it from outside. If you do it from outside, you’ll have a lot of opposition to hit from day one. And it is — I mean, look, Libya is 6 million people. They had no army, practically. And you see the amount of destruction that has taken place. You see how long it took, and you see the results. So people — you know, a lot of people in Syria are saying, “Why not Libya?” And they are wondering why the Americans and others don’t want to repeat. But the Americans say, “No, you know, Libya was not a good experience for us. We don’t want to repeat –”
-Damascus clashes cut off airport, Emirates suspends flights
By Oliver Holmes, 29 November 2012, Reuters News
* Fighting along airport road heaviest during crisis
* Internet down in Damascus, phone lines disrupted
* Rebels advancing but “not last days yet” for Assad
BEIRUT, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus on Thursday, forcing the closure of the main airport road, and the Dubai-based Emirates airline suspended flights to the Syrian capital.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that fighting along the road to the airport, southeast of Damascus, was heavier in that area that at any other time in the 20-month-old uprising against Assad.
“As of 20 minutes ago, there was heavy fighting along all the areas along the road,” the British-based Observatory’s director Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters by telephone. He said clashes were particularly intense in Babbila, a southern suburb bordering the insurgent stronghold of Tadamon.
Residents said Internet connections in the capital went down in the early afternoon and mobile and land telephone lines were only working intermittently, in what they said was the worst disruption to communication since conflict erupted last year.
Emirates said it was suspending daily flights to Damascus “until further notice”, but other airlines continued operations. Airport sources in Cairo said an Egypt Air flight that left at 1:30 pm (1130 GMT) had landed in Damascus as scheduled.
“The Egypt Air plane has arrived … and passengers are all safe but the pilot was instructed to take off back to Cairo without passengers if he felt that the situation there is not good to stay for longer,” an official at Cairo airport said.
Elsewhere in the capital, warplanes bombed Kafr Souseh and Daraya, two neighbourhoods that fringe the centre of the city where rebels have managed to hide out and ambush army units, opposition activists said.
“NOT LAST DAYS YET”
The past two weeks have seen military gains by rebels who have stormed and taken army bases across Syria, exposing Assad’s loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power which he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.
A senior European Union official said that Assad appeared to be preparing for a military showdown around Damascus, possibly by isolating the city with a network of checkpoints.
“The rebels are gaining ground but it is still rather slow. We are not witnessing the last days yet,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“On the outskirts of Damascus, there are mortars and more attacks. The regime is thinking of protecting itself … with checkpoints in the next few days … (It) seems the regime is preparing for major battle on Damascus.”
In the north of the country, rebel units launched an offensive to seize an army base close to the main north-south highway that would allow them to block troop movements and cut Assad’s main supply route to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.
The Observatory’s Abdelrahman said that rebel units from around Idlib province massed early on Thursday morning to attack Wadi al-Deif, a large base east of the rebel-held town of Maarat al-Numan.
Wadi al-Deif has been a thorn in the side of rebel units who first besieged the station in October but have met fierce resistance from government forces, backed up by air strikes.
If Wadi al-Deif fell to rebels, who already control northern border crossings to Turkey, Assad would be dependent on a single land route – from the Mediterranean port of Latakia – to supply his forces fighting to win back Aleppo.
Assad is fighting an insurgency that grew out of peaceful protests 20 months ago and has escalated, after a crackdown, into a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed.
Most foreign powers have condemned Assad but have said they will stop short of providing arms to rebel fighters as they fear heavy weapons could make their way into the hands of radical Islamist units, who have grown increasingly prominent.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Praveen Menon in Dubai and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich
the New York Times reports that Washington is considering a range of options to speed the departure of embattled President Bashar al-Assad. According to an anonymous administration official, several alternatives are under consideration, including directly arming rebels, deploying CIA operatives on the ground, and stationing surface-to-air missiles in Turkey. All these options have been discussed before, but according to the unnamed source quoted by the Times, rebel military success “has given this debate a new urgency, and a new focus.”