While the Syrian army is not technically an army of occupation, it faces some of the same disadvantages that every occupation force faces:
- while its own soldiers are obedient to a government, its opponent’s are obedient to a cause — their drive comes from within rather than above;
- while it possesses a disproportionate amount of military strength, it lacks the flexibility of its opponent;
- most importantly, it can never thwart the ‘home team’ advantage — local civilian support and an intimate knowledge of the terrain.
An example of the kind of local knowledge being successfully employed by rebels in Idlib is their use of an ancient network of tunnels, reminiscent of the tunnels that helped the Viet Cong win the war against the United States.
Yaara Bou Melhem, reporting for Australia’s SBS Dateline, was given a tour of the tunnels and she also interviewed Free Syrian Army leader, Colonel Riad al-Asaad.
Ian Black reports: Syria’s opposition fighters are increasingly using Iraqi-style roadside bombs in their war against Bashar al-Assad, most recently blowing up tanks in a large convoy travelling to attack rebels inside Aleppo.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders told the Guardian the use of improvised explosive devices has gone up in recent months, with fighters growing increasingly adept at bomb-making. Iraqi insurgents used roadside bombs extensively in their campaign against the US military.
FSA commanders said a secret network of informers inside the Syrian army and other parts of the regime passed on regular information on troop movements, allowing the rebels to strike at the army.
Syrian state TV said on Tuesday that government forces were inflicting heavy losses on “terrorist groups” in and around Aleppo.
FSA sources said they had captured several police stations in the city. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network, reported shelling in several areas. The UN said thousands of people were trapped.
Government forces were also reported to have shelled targets in Damascus and the surrounding region as well as Deir el-Zour, Deraa, Homs, Idlib and Latakia.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have asked Haitham al-Maleh, a veteran dissident, to lead a government-in-exile that will replace Assad when he falls. The decision to set up a rebel-led administration reflects the end of hopes for a negotiated transition, part of Kofi Annan’s now moribund UN-backed peace plan.
The mood on the ground is increasingly that Syria’s future will be settled by war. Mohamad Baree, a commander in the northern town of Korkanaya, said his fighters ambushed a tank column at 5am on 29 July as it left Idlib. The 20 tanks and armoured vehicles had been sent to reinforce government positions in Aleppo, part-seized by the rebels nine days earlier.
“We used five or six self-made bombs and destroyed two of the tanks. The other 18 returned to Idlib,” he said. The bombs were set off remotely by rebels hidden behind rocks.
The operation, though a success, had tragic consequences: a retreating tank fired a shell into a fifth-storey flat in Idlib, killing five members of a family. “They [the regime soldiers] were afraid. They didn’t know what was happening. They wanted revenge,” Baree said.
The commander, a pharmacist who spent seven years living in Ukraine, said he personally lacked the skills to make bombs. But he said that a “professor of chemistry” was aiding the rebels, and that other members of his unit who had served in the Syrian military possessed bomb-making skills. “We also take bombs from army bases. They are better than ours,” he admitted.
His remarks are evidence that the FSA is becoming more professional. It began as a disparate group of volunteers, many of them with no military experience. But after 16 months of operations against the Damascus government it now resembles a formidable military force.