x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rebels are resilient in Damascus suburb

While the Syrian military offensive reestablished a government presence in the suburb, it failed to deliver a decisive blow against the uprising.

DAMASCUS // Two months after tanks retook Saqba from rebels, the district in eastern Damascus continues to protest against regime control and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is making a gradual comeback.

A powerful force involving thousands of troops assaulted Saqba at the end of January. The operation to reassert authority coincided with the Arab League's decision to freeze its observer mission to Syria in the face of escalating violence.

Troops from the well-equipped and ultra loyalist Republican Guard, commanded by the president's brother, Mahar Al Assad, seized the Sunni majority suburb in little more than 48 hours, according to regime supporters who saw the attack take place.

It had been held by the FSA, a small band of lightly armed defectors who, in preceding weeks, had wrested it from government control, pushing out the feared secret police.

Since the assault, army checkpoints have been established at entrances to the district, and security forces have set up ad hoc bases in some of the concrete residential blocks that, together with hundreds of furniture workshops, make up much of the suburb.

At night army units patrol through the area, residents say, often shooting into the air or at stray cats and dogs, or chanting their loyalty to the ruling Assad family.

Much of the anti-regime graffiti scrawled on walls during the brief period of rebel control has been crossed out and replaced with pro-regime slogans, including "Assad or no one" and "Assad or we burn the country".

But while the military offensive and a subsequent campaign of raids and arrests reestablished a government presence in the streets, it failed to deliver a decisive blow against the uprising.

Deep inside Saqba's maze of streets, alleyways and dirt lots grazed by goats, anti-regime messages are still written on the sides of buildings, rubbish bins and electrical transformer stations.

Regular protests continue. Smaller than before the military entered, activists admit, but still involving as many as 1,000 young demonstrators.

Recently, the FSA has resumed attacks on government checkpoints on the outskirts of the area. On Tuesday night heavy clashes were reported in Saqba and neighbouring Kafr Batna by the Local Coordination Committees LCC), a network of grassroots activists.

A pro-regime craftsman who works in Saqba said guerrilla operations had resumed against regime targets inside the security cordon.

"I thought the army entering Saqba had finished everything but now the FSA are reborn and they seem to have a new strategy," he said. "They leave their weapons in Saqba, come in from outside, carry out their attacks and then leave again to hide in the rural areas."

"It [the uprising] is not finished in Saqba, the government doesn't have full control and if the troops left the FSA would return and take it back," he said.

At least 29 people were killed in the January assault and hundreds more wounded according to Saqba activists and human rights monitors. They also say informants working inside the army have told them the location of a mass grave, although the continued heavy security presence means they have been unable to approach the area to check if the report is true.

"We have still not recovered all of the bodies, we're not certain who was killed, who is missing who was arrested," said a leading activist from the district, who is wanted for failing to report for compulsory military service.

One of the junior protesters when the uprising began in March last year, the 25 year-old is now one of the senior and most seasoned activists in the area.

"Every three months we have a new field leadership and it gets younger and younger," he said. "As the organisers are arrested, new ones come through. Now we have a 16-year-old organising.

"Five months ago it was a generation of 25-year-olds, graduates. Now I'm the eldest, the others are 17 or 18. All of my friends are arrested or killed."

Despite this attrition, he and other opposition figures in Saqba said they were not growing disheartened after more than a year of demonstrations and violence.

"Many of the people who were marginalised here for so long have now found themselves in this revolution, in the dignity and freedom it has brought, for the first time we have a reason to live," the young activist said.

"We all knew there was something wrong [with the system in Syria], but what could you do? Now we know, we can do something. I have discovered myself in this revolution. Of course I'm not going to give that up," he said.

Another activist, a 46-year-old furniture maker, said the local economy had been destroyed as a result of the uprising and siege. He estimated the cost in lost earnings to Saqba at more than US$1.6 million (Dh5.9m) since January.

"I've not earned a single penny since the start of the revolution and I don't care, I have no problem with that. We will keep on until we have toppled the regime," he said.

Saqba residents described brutal tactics by the security forces and use of mortars, tanks and vehicle mounted anti-aircraft guns against civilians.

They said shops and homes had been looted by soldiers and recounted an incident in which the brother of a local FSA fighter was detained and tortured to death with a wood saw inside one of the workshops.

The Syrian government insists such reports are untrue and part of a foreign-backed "terrorist" plot against the country. The United Nations has said torture by Syria's security forces is systematic.

"The army acts like an occupation army, the people disdain them," the young activist said.

"The soldiers and the security are afraid of the people because the people really hate them now and they understand that. When they [the soldiers] come through the area, they get their weapons ready," he said.

In contrast, he said the FSA - mainly Saqba residents who had defected from the army - were welcomed as liberators for defending protesters from government forces. The FSA had pulled out in the face of the January assault to spare the civilian population unnecessary bloodshed, he said.

That account was disputed by Abu Mohammad, a 36 year-old furniture maker from Saqba, who said he and others had lived in fear while the FSA held the area.

"There were kids in their 20s walking around with assault rifles asking for IDs, there were bodies of alleged spies who had been executed dumped in the wasteland every morning," he said.

"Saqba lived with its freedom for a few weeks before the army came in but no one felt any real comfort," he said. "They could curse the president and his father but the FSA forced us to shut our businesses and they were killing people in the streets for being traitors, then when the army came they dropped their weapons and ran away."

Activists stressed the opposition was nonsectarian, and that Saqba's residents from minority Shiite, Alawite and Christian communities had remained unharmed in the area alongside their Sunni neighbours.

And they were adamant that, however long it took, the rebellion would eventually succeed.

"Even if we are not the generation that frees the country from Assad we are the generation that will build the generation that does liberate the country," said the young protest leader.

"It's impossible for them to crush us by military or security," he said. "They will not crush the revolution."