#Syria February 14/2013 Khan Sheikhoun: What looks like the end for a regime jet fighter
By David Enders | McClatchy Newspapers
KHAN SHEIKHOUN, Syria — Rebels have overcome the shortages of arms that plagued the early days of their fight to topple Syria’s government, when their commanders complained of running out of ammunition.
Though they still lack the kind of heavy weaponry that might help them decisively drive back the military, rebels in central Syria are constructing bigger and more effective bombs, and a steady flow of money from the militants’ leadership in Turkey has allowed them to purchase sufficient amounts of small arms.
Some groups have said recently that they have an increased number of modern anti-tank rockets, and others say they’re manufacturing so-called explosively formed penetrators to increase the killing power of their roadside bombs. EFPs, cone-shaped copper plates that are blasted into vehicles when the bombs explode, wreaked havoc on U.S. vehicles in Iraq.
“They are hard to get and expensive,” complained Abu Omar, a 25-year-old former university student who spends his days making bombs with fertilizer, mostly by packing it into empty cooking-gas containers. Syrian state-run news agencies routinely have reported seizures of such materials in past months across the country. For targeting tanks, he packs truck axles cut in half full of explosives, he said.
Members of the armed opposition say the more sophisticated weapons are being transported across the border from Turkey with the knowledge of the Turkish intelligence service, an allegation Turkey has previously denied.
The improved supply of weapons to the rebels is clearly evident, both to reporters traveling in rebel-held area and in the rising death toll among Syrian security forces in clashes with the rebels. On Wednesday, the Syrian government announced the funerals of another 27 soldiers and police officers who died in clashes with the rebels, bringing to 322 the number of such deaths so far in June. Rebel casualties are uncertain, but in the same time period the Syrian Network for Human Rights has published daily tallies of 751 deaths it attributed to pro-government forces, including 78 at Qubeir who allegedly were killed by local militia known as shabiha.
Many rebel commanders in this part of Syria, where rebel units can travel largely without encountering military forces, didn’t want to address the subject of increased arms supplies, fearing that admitting they’re better armed and funded than before might make the world less sympathetic to their cause. The would-be revolutionaries have gone to lengths to paint themselves as the victims in what’s become an all-out civil war.
But they hint at arms shipments. A Turkish-speaking Syrian who arrived in Khan Sheikhoun earlier this week to drop off communications equipment acknowledged the arrival of more sophisticated weapons, but he wouldn’t say exactly what they were.
“It’s a surprise. Just wait,” the man said, smiling and promising that the rebels would be going on the offensive in coming weeks. Other commanders in the area have said the same.
The promise of a rebel offensive also carries the promise of more destruction and displacement. According to the Turkish government, about 4,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey in the last week, bringing the number of Syrians taking refuge in seven camps just inside the Turkish border to nearly 30,000. The cramped camps have become training grounds for the rebels, who share expertise with one another before slipping back across the border.
Much of the rebels’ improved firepower appears to come from local innovation.
“Before the revolution, I worked with electronics,” said Isam al Hamadee, the leader of a group of fighters from the town of Kefar Nbouda who’s become well known among local rebels for his expertise in building remotely detonated bombs.
The rebels also are manufacturing their own rockets, including remote-controlled anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets.
But for some groups, the lack of heavy weapons has prompted a shift to more extreme tactics.
Ahrar al Sham, a group that coordinates with the rebels who operate under the name Free Syrian Army but isn’t directly under its leadership, carried out a suicide bombing against a checkpoint near this battered city last Thursday.
The leader of the group here, who uses the nom-de-guerre Abu Hamza, said the bombing was the first of its kind that his group had carried out, though other branches of Ahrar al Sham, which has proliferated across north-central Syria, had done so.
Members of Ahrar al Sham said the bomber was a 19-year-old man from Khan Sheikhoun who’d been present when Syrian soldiers fired on a group of demonstrators in the city last month, killing a number of them. The man, who took the nom-de-guerre Abu Abdullah, had seen one of his friends die.
“Of course some of the people had reservations,” Abu Hamza said. “But Abu Abdullah wanted to do this. He put it in his mind and couldn’t sleep.”
“It is better to die this way rather than be slaughtered like the people in Houla,” Abu Hamza said, referring to the 80 women and children who were killed last month, allegedly by supporters of the government of President Bashar Assad. “These operations will continue if the world doesn’t give us weapons. We have more people ready to do this.”
“What would you do if the government was killing your family? Your children?” asked one rebel who’d gathered with hundreds of others to watch smoke rise from the massive bombing. “We don’t have heavy weapons, and they have tanks and helicopters.”
Rebels frequently express concern that they’ll be seen as terrorists in the West, sometimes joking with reporters, sometimes serious. It was the selection of a military checkpoint as the target for the bombing that was the issue, not the tactic of a suicide bombing itself.
“We don’t care what the outside world thinks,” another member of Ahrar al Sham said, when he was asked whether such bombings might be seen as counterproductive to their cause.
Syrian and international media didn’t report the bombing, which engulfed the checkpoint in smoke. It’s unclear how many people were killed and whether any civilians died in the blast.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @davidjenders
News in Syria comes fast and furious. The regime makes claims, the opposition makes claims, Russia makes claims, Iran makes claims, the Saudis make claims, and the media tries to sort it out. It is a challenging, often uncomfortable task.
But “uncomfortable” or “challenging” are not synonymous with “impossible” and, frankly, sometimes the coverage falls far short of an adequate mark.
Today is a notable. example. The morning was filled with confusion over a series of reports from activist, that suggested a United Nations convoy, and the protesters around it, were shelled by the Syrian military in the town of Khan Shaykhoun in Idlib Province. Initial reports suggested that at least one UN monitor was wounded.
When video emerged showing the moment the convoy was hit, the narrative was not so clear. We speculated that it could have been some sort of explosive device, and not a shell at all, responsible for the damage. However, Reuters, having spoken with one of the monitors, said that shooting broke out before the explosion. Eyewitnesses reported that a funeral procession was fired upon by regime forces. The videos show the Free Syrian Army soldiers running toward the UN vehicle to help the observers, and many civilians were killed.
But Al Jazeera’s report is not just murkier, it obscures what can be established.
“Whoever started the violence”? Even before the reports about the strike on the UN vehicles, all the eyewitnesses said the regime did. After the attack, the UN observers sought shelter with members of the Free Syrian Army until reinforcements arrived. I’m pretty sure they know who is to blame for the confronation. There is no need for Al Jazeera to insert the question for doubt.
The broadcaster does not stop there. Al Jazeera sees more evidence that the ceasefire is broken,and then seems to lay equal blame on the regime and opposition by saying “both sides” ignore the ceasefire “when it suits their purpose.”
When it suits their purpose? The regime has never abided by the ceasefire, and now the Free Syrian Army is finally getting around to fighting back. Nor is Al Jazeera’s surprise warranted —- last week the leader of the FSA said that, after weeks of inaction and continued bloodshed, they would be renewing attacks. Al Jazeera’s reference to a ceasefire in place before this assault, and its neutrality slapped on top of how it was fractured, is sloppy reporting.
“Neutrality” can lead to a faux objectivity that simply perpetuates myths, especially when it is a forced neutrality. Al Jazeera English is in the difficult position of facing accusations that it is anti-Assad. Its Arabic channel have had even more serious allegations leveled against it. The suspicion here is they are defending by airing on the side of caution, giving undue credence to the Syrian regime’s claims.
The Syrian opposition has some serious credibility issues, even if there are many sources inside that opposition that have proven trustworthy. But the Assad regime has no credibility. When the evidence is considered, not just used as a prop for superficial balance, the story in Syria is a lot less hazy than some in the media portray it. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who just visited the Syrian border, says it best:
By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — A roadside bomb struck a car belonging to the U.N. observer mission in Syria on Tuesday, just minutes after regime forces opened fired on a funeral procession nearby and caused multiple casualties, witnesses and the mission said.
The observers were not among the dead or wounded, activists said.
“The front of a U.N. car took a direct hit,” Idlib-based activist Fadi al-Yassin, who witnessed the attack, told The Associated Press. “Everyone ran in panic but the observers stayed in the car. People tried to talk to them but they wouldn’t even open their windows.”
Just minutes earlier, Syrian forces fired on a funeral procession, activists said. Al-Yassin and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated the death toll could be as high as 20 people. It was impossible to independently confirm the toll.
“This is a real massacre and it took place in the presence of U.N. observers,” Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Observatory, said of the attack on the funeral. He called for an international investigation and for the monitors to state publicly what they saw.
A video posted by activists online appeared to show the exact moment the U.N. vehicle was struck. The video shows two white vehicles clearly marked “U.N” with people milling around it, and two others parked a few meters behind.
The blast blew off the front of the first vehicle and sent up a plume of smoke as people frantically ran for cover. The four cars are then seen slowly driving away.
Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for Syria’s special envoy Kofi Annan, confirmed the observers were caught up in the country’s violence.
“The U.N. Mission in Syria reports that shortly after 2 p.m. local time today, a (U.N.) convoy of four vehicles was struck by an explosion from an improvised explosive device,” Fawzi said in a statement. “Three U.N. vehicles were damaged. No U.N. personnel were injured.”
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests calling for change, but a relentless government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. Some soldiers also have switched sides and joined forces with the rebels.
World powers have backed a peace plan that was put forward by Annan, but the bloodshed has not stopped. More than 200 U.N. observers have been deployed in Syria to oversee the truce between the government and armed rebels.
The U.N. estimates the conflict has killed more than 9,000 people.
U.N. spokesman Hassan Seklawi said 211 military observers as well as 66 civilian U.N. staffers working for the observation mission have been deployed in the country, with teams based in major cities such as Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Deir el-Zour, Daraa and Homs.
The number of military observers is expected to reach the maximum of 300 later this month.
05/15/12 #Syria Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib shelled as monitors visit, UN vehicle hit, casualties reported