Middle East
2:07 am
Tue July 24, 2012

Border Battles A Cat-And-Mouse Game In Syria

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 8:30 am

Second of five parts

I'm standing next to a ridge, looking at the Syrian town of Salaqin. Just up on the ridge you can see the silhouettes of a mosque and couple of water towers. It looks like a very small, inconsequential town, but because it's on the Syrian-Turkish border it's very important to the rebels.

What the Syrian rebels are trying to do right now is carve out a kind of safe zone, a buffer zone where they can gather, assemble and plan attacks against the Syrian regime's army, and also a place where they can move weapons and money into Syria.

The government knows this a strategic and important town as well. Just a few days ago, it began moving its tanks into Salaqin to assert its control. The rebels heard about these tanks, and decided to fight back.

It was early in the morning when the battle started and rebel groups from around this region rushed to Salaqin. They planted homemade bombs along the main roads into town. They say they exploded them as the tanks rolled past, then fired rocket-propelled grenades at the tanks.

As the battle rages on into the afternoon, we wait in the next town over. It's the home base for one of the rebel groups that was fighting in Salaqin.

The sun is about to go down and we've been hearing about the clashes going on, just over the hills, all day. We start to hear helicopters, explosions and some gunfire.

Behind me, the sounds of the mosque can be heard asking for God to help the rebels, as well as naming the names of some of those who were killed. At least two have been killed so far.

After sundown, we walk to the rebel base to see if we can hear any more news about the battle. Our host, Abu Omar, says a prayer for his rebel friends. He's afraid they won't make it back.

Hours later, we get word that the rebels have taken Salaqin and are heading back to base. People erupt in celebration.

Multiple vehicles full of rebels return to the town and receive a hero's welcome. There's a lot of firing; they're celebrating and shooting in the air to celebrate what they call a victory just over the hill. Hundreds of people in the streets kiss the rebels and welcome them home.

In a place where every little victory means something, this is definitely one. We manage to grab rebel commander Anas az Zeer and sit him down in what used to be a government post office that the rebels have now claimed as a headquarters.

We ask him how this little victory will help bring down the Syrian regime. First, he says, it is important for the rebels to hold towns like Salaqin along the Turkish border, so injured fighters can reach Turkey. The injured used to die in makeshift field hospitals or along difficult border crossings. Now many of them make it to Turkish hospitals and survive.

Anas says the bigger goal is that all the rebel groups in northern Syria will gather here and push forward to Syria's capital, Damascus, to storm the presidential palace. He admits that might be a long way off.

Even though the rebels have managed to penetrate the country's main cities, the regime's army still has the resources to fight in little towns; towns like Salaqin.

That night, the celebrations go on for hours outside the rebel headquarters. The next day, though, the regime's army takes back Salaqin.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We've been getting a rare, independent view inside Syria this week. Since the deaths of journalists inside that country, the world has mostly had to rely on the Syrian government's statements, as well as the dramatic reports and videos of Syrian rebels. But some foreign journalists have made it to Damascus. Others have slipped across the Syrian border.

And in recent days, NPR's Kelly McEvers crossed that border into rebel-held Syrian territory. She's been watching as the rebels try to assert control of regions near that border. The second part of her series begins in a town where rebels are gaining ground, though the Syrian regime still has them outgunned.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: I'm standing next to a ridge, looking at the Syrian town of Salaqin. Just up on the ridge, you can see sort of the silhouettes of a mosque, a water tower. It looks like a very small and sort of inconsequential town, but it's extremely important to the rebels because it's on the Syrian-Turkish border.

And what the rebels are trying to do right now in Syria is carve out a kind of safe zone, a kind of buffer zone where they can gather, assemble, plan attacks against the Syrian regime's army, and where they can move weapons and money into Syria.

The government knows this a strategic and important town, as well. Just a few days ago, it began moving its tanks into Salaqin to assert its control. The rebels heard about these tanks and decided to fight back.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: It was early in the morning when the battle started. Rebel groups from around this region rushed to Salaqin. They planted homemade bombs along the main roads into town. They say they exploded them as the tanks rolled past, then fired rocket-propelled grenades at the tanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRENADES)

MCEVERS: This video from the battle shows the rebels taking out one tank. Another video shows one of the rebels shot dead by what he says was a Syrian army sniper.

As the battle rages on into the afternoon, we wait in the next town over. It's the home base for one of the rebel groups that was fighting in Salaqin.

The sun is about to go down. We've been hearing about the clashes going on, just over the hills, all day. Now we're starting to hear it. We're starting to hear helicopters, a couple of explosions, and some gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

MCEVERS: That's, behind me, the sound of the mosque calling out, asking for God to help the rebels, also naming the names of a couple of those who were killed.

At least two have been killed so far. After sundown, we walk to the rebel base to see if we can hear any more news about the battle.

ABU OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Our host, Abu Omar, says a prayer for his rebel friends. He's afraid they won't make it back. But hours later, we get word that the rebels have taken Salaqin and are heading back to base.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

MCEVERS: People erupt in celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

MCEVERS: One, two, three, four vehicles full of rebels just got back into the town, obviously receiving a hero's welcome. There's a lot of firing. They're celebrating. They're shooting the guns in the air to celebrate their return, what they call a victory just over the hill. Now the town is following them, hundreds of people in the streets kissing them, welcoming them home. In a place where every little victory means something, this is definitely one.

We managed to grab rebel commander Anas az Zeer and sit him down in what used to be a government post office that the rebels have now claimed as a headquarters. We ask him how this little victory will help bring down the Syrian regime.

ANAS AZ ZEER: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: First, he says, it's important for the rebels to hold towns like Salaqin along the Turkish border, so injured fighters can reach Turkey. The injured used to die in makeshift field hospitals or along difficult border crossings. Now, many of them make it to Turkish hospitals and survive.

ZEER: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Anas says the bigger goal is that all the rebel groups in northern Syria will gather here and push forward to Syria's capital, Damascus, to storm the presidential palace. But he admits that might be a long way off. Even though the rebels have managed to penetrate the country's main cities, the regime's army still has the resources to fight in little towns - little towns like Salaqin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ZEER: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: That night, the celebrations go on for hours outside the rebel headquarters. The next day, though, the regime's army takes back Salaqin.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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