x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Rebels outmanoeuvre Syrian troops to seize border post

Syrian rebels ambushed the shabbiha militia and moved in on the border post, taking it over in a final push after government tanks withdrew.

ANTAKYA, TURKEY // Syrian rebels were in full control of the Bab Al Hawa checkpoint on the border with Turkey yesterday after a fierce battle with government troops.

The takeover, along with that of another border post further to the east and at least one more along the border with Iraq, were the latest setbacks to the Syrian regime.

A Turkish official, speaking on a condition of anonymity, confirmed that rebels were in control of the Bab Al Hawa checkpoint.

He added that another border crossing in Qamishli, east of Bab Al Hawa in Syria's Kurdish region, had also been taken over by opposition forces.

He described Turkey's other four crossing points with Syria as "either in the hands of the regime or about to fall in the hands of the opposition".

He said that the takeover of the border posts by rebels did not necessarily pose a threat to Turkey.

"The borders are opened from our perspective," the official said. It was "premature" to say that the situation was a security risk to Turkey but, he added, "on the other side of the border there is a security risk anyway from every kind of perspective because these guys are fighting each other".

Ali Al Dabbagh, Iraq's government spokesman, said rebels controlled one major border crossing between the two countries but three others remained in the hands of the Syrian regime and were processing thousands of Iraqi migrants fleeing the conflict.

He refuted reports that rebels had seized all four major border crossings between Syria and Iraq.

About 150 rebels were in control of the Bab Al Hawa border post yesterday, according to press reports. Rebels had sacked the interior and looted and burnt Turkish lorries waiting to cross back into Turkey.

Rebels said the battle began at about 2pm on Thursday. Muhammad Sheikh Abudullah, 30, a rebel from the northern Syrian city of Jisr Al Shughour, said he had arrived with his unit of about 27 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters after the battle started.

Describing the fighting, he said the Syrian military had pinned the rebels down under heavy tank fire for about two hours.

Hiding in the surrounding countryside, the rebels waited until the military thought they had fled and had dispatched four truckloads of shabbiha militiamen to check whether they were gone.

The rebels ambushed the shabbiha and moved in on the border post, taking it over in a final push after the tanks withdrew.

"It was easier for us in that way, because we had traps for them," Mr Abdullah said by telephone from Bab Al Hawa. "They didn't know that we were there."

Several rebels claimed that many of the soldiers at the border post had defected, with some fleeing to Turkey and others joining the FSA. Mr Abdullah said at least 17 shabbiha had been captured.

A video posted on YouTube showed rebels defacing a poster of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, atop the Bab Al Hawa checkpoint. Mr Abdullah said he had been stationed down the road and had not seen the event take place.

However, he said that the coming days would be very important and that the rebels were expecting regime forces to try to take the border post back.

A bigger fight was coming, he said, adding that he heard reports of regime forces in Idlib firing randomly from tanks at distances up to two kilometres.

"If the army is able to take the area back, they will massacre all the people there," he said.

Meanwhile, a report yesterday quoting a Turkish official said that a Syrian brigadier-general and 20 other military officers, including four colonels, were among 710 people who fled from Syria to Turkey overnight.

The latest defections brought the number of Syrian generals sheltering in Turkey to 22, the official said. A total of 43,387 Syrian refugees are registered as living in Turkey.