As Syria government forces launch brutal attacks on rebel-held towns in Idlib province, the insurgents increasingly depend on a campaign of bombings and kidnappings.
Syrian rebels detonate a homemade bomb on a road to disrupt access to their part of Idlib province. (Frederic Lafargue, AFP/Getty Images / March 31, 2012)
IDLIB, Syria — Scattered around the house that Abu Nadim once shared with his wife and five children are hints of its former existence: a SpongeBob SquarePants pillow, a baby’s crib, a woman’s purse.
Now the four-room home is a bomb-making workshop.
Bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, containers of peroxide and acetone and powdered aluminum cover the floor, along with boxes of wires, PVC pipes, computer parts and cigarette ash, as if someone had wandered through without thought for an ashtray.
Abu Nadim, 42, has a teddy-bear face and a left hand that’s wrapped in blue fabric and missing three fingers, casualties of a grenade experiment that went awry. He holds his cigarette between thumb and stub.
Once it became clear that the lightly armed rebels who are fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad were no match for tanks, the taxi driver, like others, turned to bomb-making videos made by Palestinians, Lebanese and Afghans.
He sent his family to live with his brother-in-law and started making bombs.
When the armed resistance began, the rebels envisioned their revolution as an iteration of the Libyan model: a steady, if slow, battle to the capital backed by foreign military support. But in the absence of weapons, foreign aid and an organized defense, more and more it appears to be following a different model of insurgency, predicated on bombings and kidnappings.
“We used to see people in other countries put on suicide vests and blow themselves up; now we understand it comes as a result of oppression and torture and killing,” said Abu Nadim, whose home is in the village of Binnish. “If the situation continues like this and no one helps us, then it is possible that the young men will turn to suicide bombings.”
The rebels have been using homemade bombs for months, but they have begun to depend on them even more in the last month as the government has turned its attention to regaining control here in Idlib, a rebellious northwestern province bordering Turkey, after months of gradual progress on the part of the rebels. The brutal attacks on one rebel-held town after another have left them scattered and even less able to defend themselves.
How successful these bombs have been in taking out their targets is unknown; rebels can provide only a few videos to back up their claims of destroying multiple tanks and killing dozens of government thugs. In one video uploaded in early March, two explosions go off as a tank drives along a highway. One of the rebels can be heard referring to a hard-hit city, “God is great, for your sake, Homs, for your sake, Homs.” But through the thick debris cloud, the tank keeps driving along.
Still, it could signal a new stage in a conflict with few alternatives.
The feeling here is one of desperation — and steadfast defiance.
“They are planning to retake the region piece by piece,” said Abu Hamdo, a member of the Revolution Command Council in Idlib. “But there is no going back, because if they catch us we are dead, and if we fight them we are dead.”
But just like their shortage of weapons, a dependence on bombs has caused a shortage of fertilizer, powdered aluminum and igniters the rebels now try to procure from Turkey, which leaves their operations days or even weeks behind as they wait for supplies to make it across the border.
“If it wasn’t for bombs, the revolution wouldn’t have continued until now, because there is such a shortage of weapons,” said Ameen, one of the rebels in Binnish. “If it wasn’t for the bombs, the entire population here would have already fled to Turkey.”
In the principal’s office of an empty elementary school in the nearby village of Sarmeen, under a wall-length mural of a quaint countryside, sat four bombs made of gas canisters cut in half, with metal lids that made them look like fat mushrooms.
It was the latest design from the Free Northern Militia, which was working on lining the streets leading into the village with bombs, to strike at tanks launching an attack they knew was imminent.
“When we first went out in protests, we had hope for foreign support, but that hope was dashed. We had hope for buffer areas; that was dashed. We had hope for support for the Free Syrian Army, and that was dashed,” said the militia’s 25-year-old leader, Bilal Khabeet, who like Free Syrian Army members is a military defector. “A rifle and 120 bullets, that’s all I have. Once they are finished, I am finished.”
Sarmeen had already been invaded five times. During the last attack, the rebels said, they destroyed five tanks and killed dozens of soldiers, claims impossible to verify. Because of the strong defense they launched, they said, they doubted that the army was done with them.
And indeed, four days later the army began shelling Sarmeen in the early morning. By the afternoon, soldiers had come into the village. Rebels said they were able to blow up five tanks with their bombs, but they were forced to flee, and the army burned many homes and killed about 17 residents.
“It is called the game of the mouse playing against the elephant. This is the only way we are able to fight them. What’s a rifle against a tank?” said Abu Adeeb, 39, who carries a 9-millimeter gun and a quick temper with him wherever he goes.
This new weapon presents religious quandaries for the rebels. They consulted with religious leaders for direction and were told they can’t plant the bombs near homes or detonate them if they know civilians are nearby. But if civilians are inadvertently killed, the sheiks told them, the rebels will not be liable and casualties will be considered martyrs.
For a while the rebels here used donkeys, strapping bombs to the animals and blowing them up as they neared army checkpoints, said Abu Zidan, a fighter with the Northern Villages Militia in the village of Jarjanaz, dressed entirely in brown camouflage.
“Then they began killing all the donkeys, and now there aren’t any left in Idlib,” Abu Zidan said with a chuckle.
Yet as they increasingly rely on homemade bombs to destroy tanks, the rebels continue their piecemeal attacks on checkpoints and transports, kidnapping a few soldiers or security officers at a time.
On a recent afternoon, on a steep road in the village of Sarjeh, rebel fighters buzzed around a house after kidnapping six men at a checkpoint: four young security officers and two drivers. The young men — their hands bound behind their backs, all of them wearing jeans and stylish white shirts — were slapped and dragged into a living room, where they were lined up against the wall and questioned.
“I’m a driver, I swear, I’m just a driver,” begged the taxi driver, a chubby man with fear in his eyes. Beside him, the second driver buried his face in a pile of mattresses and blankets.
“Don’t you know what is happening in Idlib? Bodies being burned, people being thrown from buildings and killing of children?” asked Abu Hamaam, a rebel dressed in a black-and-red track suit. “The revolution has been going on for a year; why have you not defected yet? Don’t you have a TV? Don’t you see what is happening?”
It is with these foot soldiers that the regime continues to kill, said Sheik Abu Issa, who worked in tiles and ceramics before the uprising. By kidnapping a few of them at a time — or even a driver delivering food — the rebels slowly chip away at the government’s offensive abilities, he said.
The fates of the hostages vary. If there is proof that a hostage killed civilians, rebels say, he faces execution. Some join the rebel ranks, and others are released, but only after enough time has passed for their commanding officers to believe they have defected, making it impossible for the soldiers to return to the army.
Later that day in the cellar, with a low roof and dirty, hay-covered mattresses on the ground, sat seven men, including the six taken at a checkpoint, still bound and blindfolded. Abu Adeeb crawled in and grabbed one of the young men, a member of the government security forces in the city of Idlib. In June, Abu Adeeb was arrested and was held by those forces for more than a week.
“You dog, you broke my ribs, you dog,” he said, punching the hostage in the chest as the young man let out muffled whimpers. “This is for when they broke my ribs.”
He continued to punch and slap him as the hostage begged.
Sheik Abu Issa knelt down in front of the taxi driver, “Listen, you are going to talk when we ask you, or else one bullet, one bullet, right here,” he said, pointing at his temple.
The rebels here and across the country increasingly find themselves on the run, even from an army stretched thin. The dire situation has worsened problems and rifts among a beleaguered and ramshackle opposition.
In a revolution for the sake of democracy, the rebels are plagued with too many wanting to be leaders and too few wanting to follow. Not uncommonly, a disagreement in the ranks of one militia results in fighters breaking off to form their own armed group.
That happened in the city of Idlib, where an estimated 5,000 fighters were divided among more than 10 militias, many working on their own. When the army invaded there in March, there was no coordination and the weak defense they launched collapsed when their ammunition ran out. By the third day all the rebels had withdrawn, fleeing in every direction into the suburbs.
Now self-appointed leader Mazen Arja, an agricultural engineer and father of three, spends his days driving from safe house to safe house trying to account for the rebels and, in some cases, patch up internal rifts. On the day that homes in their city were being raided and burned, the rebels held a meeting miles away to try to reconcile their ranks.
It is a scenario that is playing out repeatedly here: The army and security forces sweep into village after village, leaving behind bodies and burned homes, and the routed rebels must regroup.
“We have to organize anew and figure out who was killed and bring people together to begin the liberation of the northern region,” Arja said. “If we’re not patient and fight, we’re all dead anyway.”