Syrian rebels' morale deflated by warplanes

The Assad regime might be on the ropes but there is one area where the rebels cannot touch it: control of the skies. Hugh Naylor reports from Syria.
Jet-borne rocket and bomb barrages launched by the Syrian Air Force this week flattened large swathes of Azzaz's Al Hara Al Kablie residential neighbourhood.
Jet-borne rocket and bomb barrages launched by the Syrian Air Force this week flattened large swathes of Azzaz's Al Hara Al Kablie residential neighbourhood.

AZZAZ, SYRIA // Sheared-off apartment walls, homes reduced to rubble and bodies trapped under layers of concrete and twisted metal. The destruction from an air raid that killed more than 40 people is a stark reminder to the residents of this rebel-controlled city of the lethal advantage still held by Syria's government.

The rebels are practically helpless against its warplanes.

Wednesday's bombing proved, if nothing else, that the rebels face enormous challenges in holding any territory inside Syria.

Many now seem increasingly unsure of their ability to hold this city of 70,000 near the border with Turkey, which insurgents consider crucial to their bid to topple the regime of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad.

Jet-borne rocket and bomb barrages launched by the government on Wednesday flattened large swathes of Azzaz's Al Hara Al Kablie residential neighbourhood.

Yesterday, fragile rebel progress seemed to be crumbling under the weight of fear.

Shops that had reopened after rebels took control of Azzaz last month abruptly closed again. Frightened residents packed cars full of luggage and plastic sacks filled with belongings as they fled the city.

Space on one bus was so limited that some passengers climbed on to the roof.

"Turkey, Turkey, Turkey," said an employee at one of the few open mini-markets in Azzaz's centre, pointing to cars of fleeing residents. "The people are going to Turkey."

Rebels want to use Azzaz, located on the border with Turkey, as a mouth to feed their supply lines to Aleppo, about 40 kilometres south, where they are fighting government forces.

But even rebel fighters yesterday refused to enter their Azzaz headquarters, located two streets away from the site of the attack. The day before Wednesday's bombing, the facility had been teeming with activity. The attack has shattered their confidence.

"Jets!" warned one rebel, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, as he sped away from the area on a motorcycle.

In a report released yesterday, Human Rights Watch said the Syrian government's attack showed a "callous disregard for civilian life" saying it had "destroyed a whole residential block".

It also destroyed a community.

"Why?" yelled Omar Ramdo, 42, in front of residents from Al Hara Al Kablie who scrambled to recount the losses of loved ones.

"They were only children," he said, referring to his four-year-old nephew and eight-year-old niece killed in the attack. Their parents were critically injured in the attack and taken to Turkey for treatment.

"This is a neighbourhood of civilians, not fighters," he said.

He and other residents wandered through the scenes of destruction yesterday. An old man leaning on a cane looked on silently at the demolished buildings.

Inside a partially destroyed power station, a bone protruded through bits of blood-splattered rubble. Residents said it was the remains of a woman. Many more were still underneath the rubble, they said.

Rebel fighters from Syria's north have complained for months that a lack of international support - primarily the provision of anti-aircraft weapons - has hampered their invasion of Aleppo launched last month.

While their assault on Syria's largest city still seems in their favour, their inability to defend captured territory against warplane attacks may dampen the public's confidence in them.

"We need America to defend us against Assad's jets and gangs!" Radwan Ashawi, 52, an unemployed trader, said yesterday while standing amid the destroyed buildings in Azzaz.

He doubted, however, that would happen anytime soon.

"We're being slaughtered here and the world does nothing!" Mr Ashawi said.

Asked about the strength of rebel fighters, Mahmoud Ammouri's response addressed an entirely different issue. Why, he asked, had Turkey not done more to repel the regime's warplanes?

"What is Erdogan doing?" he said in reference to Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "The jets come all the way to the border to attack us, and what does Turkey do to help? Nothing."

For Yousef Danoun, the back and forth of rebel-regime clashes were of lesser importance yesterday. His family lost 15 members in Wednesday's air raid. Surviving family members attended graves with cinder block headstones, hastily dug to accommodate the influx of bodies.

"What does Assad want from us?" asked Mr Danoun, 47.

He then walked over to comfort his brother, who was kneeling over one of the makeshift headstones, crying.

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Published: August 17, 2012 04:00 AM


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