x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syrian army accused of new horrors

It is not the first time the Syrian army has reasserted its control in Deir Ezzor, yet the attacks have only hardened the resistance.

Syrians prepare to bury 13-year-old Ahmad bin Muhsin Qarush during his funeral on March 24, 2012. He was reportedly killed two days earlier in shelling by regime forces in the northwestern city of Sermin. in Syria.
Syrians prepare to bury 13-year-old Ahmad bin Muhsin Qarush during his funeral on March 24, 2012. He was reportedly killed two days earlier in shelling by regime forces in the northwestern city of Sermin. in Syria.

DAMASCUS // Reinforced army units, including tanks, were sent back into the centre of Deir Ezzor city last week to reassert crumbling central authority over the tribal governorate and the provincial capital.

It is not the first time the Syrian army has reasserted its control in Deir Ezzor, yet the attacks have only hardened the resistance.

In last week's battle, before the additional troops arrived, a small group of rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), supported by hundreds of armed civilians, had seized at least partial control of areas in the heart of Deir Ezzor city, including Hamediyeh, Jebleh and Muazafeen.

Some outlying villages were also in opposition hands, with security forces ejected and army checkpoints dismantled, activists said.

The latest surge in violence, which has killed more than 30 people according to rights monitors in the province, began last Sunday when security forces attacked a safe house used by the FSA.

Similar raids and sweeping arrests had been taking place for days but on this occasion some civilian residents of the eastern workers district took up weapons and went to help the rebels.

Accounts from inside the city suggest this only enraged government forces, who later trapped 15 opposition members of a leading tribe on top of a multi-storey building, executed them and threw their bodies from the roof. A video purporting to show the event - shakily filmed from a nearby window - was posted on the internet.

Although it cannot be independently confirmed, a prominent tribesman from the region said the incident had taken place and had provoked uproar.

"That was a turning point, it was a big crime. It's bad enough to kill people, it's another thing to throw their corpses off a roof," the tribesman said on condition of anonymity. "They are treating people like insects, like rubbish, the security forces have gone crazy."

All of those killed were from the Albu Khabour tribe, activists said. Its members have played a significant role in the uprising in Syria's eastern desert region.

There has been no official comment from the Syrian authorities on the incident, but they maintain government forces are behaving in accordance with the law and are not committing the kind of widespread abuses and atrocities documented by human rights groups and the United Nations, dismissing such claims against them as part of an international conspiracy.

Tensions escalated further this week when, in retaliation, the Free Syrian Army captured four security personnel.

A prominent community figure from Deir Ezzor said a government mediator sought to broker a deal whereby the FSA would release them in exchange for the remains of killed activists being handed back to their families for burial.

The government mediator also insisted that all defectors surrender their weapons, something the community leader said they would not do.

"The FSA responded to the negotiation attempt by saying they would kill 1,000 regime men for every one opposition man killed," said a source involved in the indirect talks between government and rebels.

"The opposition don't believe the regime wants to negotiate; they tried that in July and the tanks came," he said.

On Tuesday night, the FSA announced it had pulled out of Deir Ezzor city, saying it had done so to prevent a looming military assault on heavily populated civilian areas. Refugees had already begun to leave in anticipation of an attack.

Although an apparent victory for government forces which ostensibly regained control of "liberated" districts, it is the latest in a string of military and security operations, including a major assault during Ramadan, designed to bring Deir Ezzor to heel.

None has produced a conclusive victory for the regime, and community leaders and activists say that with each attack the province has only slipped further out of Damascus's grasp. While the regime continues to command support in Deir Ezzor, including from all the major tribal leaders, the opposition has become increasingly militant.

"More and more civilians have been taking up arms. I would say that 2,000, perhaps more, civilians are now carrying weapons in addition to the FSA," said a leading opposition figure from the region.

"In July we were still talking about mainly peaceful demonstrations but now we are looking at opposition forces carrying arms, with a few peaceful demonstrators," he said.

After the incident involving bodies being thrown from a roof, the activist said tribesmen vowing revenge had taken to the streets carrying automatic rifles and, if they had no firearms, kitchen knives.

"They say there is no other way to deal with this regime than to declare war against it," he said.

According to activists from Deir Ezzor, the FSA in the city and surrounding area numbers no more than 70 men - among them defectors from Aleppo and Latakia provinces. Most are conscripts, with a few junior officers.

Nonetheless, residents of the city and surrounding countryside say this small band of rebels had carried out attacks on checkpoints, forcing regime security units to retreat to their bases at night, and has set up its own checkpoints - even on major highways.

A prominent political figure from Deir Ezzor supportive of the opposition said the FSA had killed locally hired thugs from a pro-government militia, known as Shabbiheh, who had taken part in suppressing demonstrations.

"They give the shabbiheh a warning to stop hurting the opposition and if they don't stop, they are killed," he said.

Deir Ezzor is now in a state of guerrilla war, the political figure said. "The FSA is able to fight and survive because they have the support of the civilian population, they get help from the residents. If they were just facing the mukhabarat [Syria's intelligence service] the opposition would have won by now but, with the army and tanks, the government is able to hold on."

Not all of those taking up arms are doing so for political reasons, activists from the province said - although they maintained the vast majority were fighting to overthrow a decades-old autocratic regime. One village, near the historic site of Dura Europus on the Euphrates River, has set up its own militia that robs passing traffic.

"It's just for money, they don't care about the politics, they just want to take advantage of the situation," an activist from a nearby town said.

Since the March uprising began, more than 300 people in Deir Ezzor province have been killed by security forces and thousands more wounded, arrested and tortured, according to opposition groups.

Syria's state-run media has reported numerous killings of security personnel in the province, which it has blamed on armed "terrorist" gangs.

"The armed fighters we are talking about today used to be peaceful protesters, but they were arrested, humiliated, tortured and now they are armed fighters," said another leading community figure from Deir Ezzor.

He dismissed the suggestion the rebels were "terrorists" but said the conditions were increasingly dangerous.

"It's becoming a wider uprising, a tribal situation. Much larger numbers of people are carrying weapons, the situation is becoming more and more painful," he said.

psands@thenational.ae