02/08/2013 - #Syria - Ma’arat Alnuman - Shelling on the city
By: Basma Atassi
IDLIB, SYRIA – The rebel-held town Heesh in Idlib province is just 600m away from the frontline. Al Jazeera’s team, accompanied by an Idlib-based journalist, arrived in Heesh to film the clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces, as artillery bombardment continued to shower the town.
Just after we parked our car, an angry rebel confronted the local journalist: “Get out here! Why are you here?” he shouted. “Are you coming to film the destruction? Where were you before? Where were you when the town was still in one piece?”
His comrades tried to push the angry man back. But he continued to shout: “You have been filming in every town where shells hit. But when it came to Heesh, you ignored it completely. I do not want to see you here.”
The local journalist responded by saying he could not film in every single town in the province alone, telling the fighter it was the job of Heesh activists to show the world what has been going on in their own town.
Ten minutes later, the fighter calmed down and the crowd that formed around the car had dispersed.
We strolled through what looked like a ghost town. Most buildings had been reduced to rubble. We stumbled upon hands and legs of mannequins from destroyed clothes shops, pieces of broken mirrors from the barber shop, burnt children’s toys and piles of garbage.
We did not see a single civilian resident, in what was once a town of 22,000 people. There were only fighters roaming the streets, seemingly undisturbed by the falling rockets.
Rebels had been trying to push back regime forces and attack the strategic military base of Wadi al-Deif on the main road between Damascus and Aleppo, located just 17km away from Heesh.
Weaponry ‘through a dropper’
But fighters are lacking the heavy artillery they need to make lasting advances. The weaponry is arriving in their hands “through a dropper”, they say.
Amid the shortage of weapons and the proliferation of diverse opposition battalions, each group has been trying to attract financial support to fund its battles.
Media – and especially social media- has become their means to showcase their dedication to the fight and thereafter invite outside donations.
“He is upset because no media outlet showed up in the town before. We were left alone for months,” a fighter named Mustafa said, trying to justify his comrade’s outburst. “Nobody knew about us, so we received no moral support or help with weapons.”
Opposition activists film rebel operations and clashes with regime forces and upload the footage to be watched by people worldwide on YouTube. They also send video to television networks, hoping it will be broadcast.
But in Heesh, activists lacked good cameras and internet devices. They had to go to nearby towns where they could connect to the internet and upload the footage.
“This process sometimes took few days. By the time we released the footage it had become outdated and unusable. So very few people heard about us,” Mustafa said.
Thus while the town is strategically important in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, it received no media attention and little was known about the suffering of residents there before they fled the bombardment.
Fighters say media exposure would not just have increased the chances of receiving money from outside. It would also have prompted fighters from other towns to join them at their frontline.
“The lack of phone lines and the continuous shelling have made communication between fighters in different towns difficult. When we watched reports on TV about fierce clashes in the neighbouring town, many of our fighters went there to fight along,” Mohammad, another fighter in Heesh, told us.
“But nobody came to help us because nobody knew about us”.
While different battalions are eager for media exposure and a lot of residents want to show the world the humanitarian catastrophe they are enduring, some locals in Idlib province are growing sick and tired of the media.
In the nearby town of al-Bara, we filmed children who started working in a vegetable shop after their schools were closed.
The father welcomed our crew. I sat silent near him on the sidewalk waiting for my colleague to finish filming.
A few minutes later, the father- who probably thought I was a foreigner who did not speak Arabic – told his friend: “We have reached a level where we are allowing our children to be filmed so that the world can feel our pain. But the footage has become a tool for the opposition living outside to beg for money.”
“I just want this whole situation to end,” he said.
“Allah Ykhalisna, Allah Ykhalisna (May Allah get us out of this situation)”.
Basma Atassi is a journalist covering the Middle East. Before joining Al Jazeera, she was an assistant editor at Carnegie Endowment in Beirut.
Rebels overran Friday morning Taftanaz airbase, the largest in northern Syria, after several days of fierce combat, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The fighting at Taftanaz military airport ended at 11:00 am (0900 GMT) and the base is entirely in rebel hands,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
“Many regime forces have been killed and most of the soldiers and officers fled at dawn,” he told AFP by phone.
“This is the largest airbase to be seized since the revolt began” nearly 22 months ago, said Abdel Rahman.
In previous months, the rebels have taken control of the Hamdan airport in Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border in the east, and the Marj al-Sultan military airport in Damascus province.
The assault on Taftanaz was led by jihadist fighters from Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamic Vanguard battalions, as well as other rebel groups, the Observatory said.
The rebels seized several military vehicles and a major weapons depot.
The government forces, however, managed to pull out most of the 60 helicopters deployed in the airbase, leaving behind 20 choppers that are no longer in working condition, the Observatory said.
Regime warplanes launched air raids Thursday on a military airbase in northwest Syria to try to dislodge rebels who have seized more than half of the compound amid fierce clashes on the ground, a watchdog said.
The strikes on Taftanaz military airport came after the hardline Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra Front battalions stormed it on Wednesday following a protracted siege, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Fighting continued inside the airbase on Thursday near the main buildings as warplanes and helicopters bombed the airport and surrounding areas, the watchdog said.
The insurgents had already seized a weapons depot and captured 13 troops, including an officer, the Observatory said, adding that 11 militiamen loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad were reportedly taken prisoner.
According to the watchdog, the rebels also seized 16 to 20 aircraft, but they had been damaged during the clashes or disabled and were not airworthy.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a grassroots network of activists on the ground, reported that helicopters were dropping explosive barrel-bombs on the town of Taftanaz.
Near Damascus, loyalist troops carried out air raids on the Eastern Ghuta region and the town of Maliha on the eastern outskirts of the capital, as clashes broke out in the town of Sayyida Zeinab to the south.
The army has for months been trying to regain total control of Damascus and its environs, and battles have raged outside the capital where insurgents have set up rear bases.
The regime has frequently claimed to be waging a “final” crackdown on the rebellion in Damascus province, but such announcements have proved false.
On Thursday, the pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan reported that the army “continued to progress on all axes of Damascus, carrying out intensive military operations on all fronts despite the difficult weather conditions.”
On Wednesday, 57 people were killed in violence across Syria, according to the Obervatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground.
Syrian rebels, some from Islamist units, fired machineguns and mortars at helicopters grounded at a northern military air base near the main Aleppo-Damascus highway on Wednesday, a monitoring group said.
The al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham Brigade and other units operating in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib were attacking the Afis military airport near Taftanaz, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
There was no immediate account of the fighting around the air base from Syrian state media.
Insurgents trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad see his air power as their main threat. They hold swathes of eastern and northern provinces, as well as a crescent of suburbs around the capital, Damascus, but have been unable to protect rebel-held territory from relentless attack by helicopters and jets.
In recent months, rebel units have besieged several military installations, especially along Syria’s main north-south artery from Aleppo, its most populous city, to Damascus.
The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdelrahman, said Wednesday’s attack was the latest of several attempts to capture the base. A satellite image of the airport shows more than 40 helicopter landing pads, a runway and aircraft hangars.
An estimated 45,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule but turned into an armed revolt after months of government repression.
In Damascus, Assad’s forces fired artillery and mortars at the eastern districts of Douma, Harasta, Irbin and Zamlaka, where rebels have a foothold, activists living there said.
Syria’s civil war is the longest and deadliest conflict to emerge from uprisings that began sweeping the Arab world in 2011 and has developed a significant sectarian element.
Rebels, mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority, confront Assad’s army and security forces, dominated by his Shi’ite-derived Alawite sect, which, along with some other minorities, fears revenge if he falls.
U.N.-led diplomatic peace efforts have stumbled. Western and many Sunni Arab states demand Assad’s immediate removal, an idea resisted by Russia, China and Syria’s Shi’ite ally Iran.
The rebels say they will not negotiate unless Assad, who has vowed to fight to the death, leaves power.
More than 110 people, including at least 31 of Assad’s soldiers and militiamen, were killed in Syriaon the first day of 2013, according to the Observatory, which tracks the conflict from Britain using a network of contacts inside the country.