BEIRUT— Just last week, the town of Maarat al-Noaman in northern Syria was the scene of a major victory for Syrian insurgents, who drove government forces from checkpoints at a crucial crossroads on a major highway, apprehended scores of soldiers, celebrated atop captured armored vehicles and declared the town "liberated."
On Thursday, jubilation turned to horror as government airstrikes sent fountains of dust and rubble skyward and crushed several dozen people who had returned to what they thought was a newly safe haven in a country mired in civil war, according to reporters on the scene for a Western news agency, and antigovernment fighters and activists who backed up their accounts with videos posted online.
Men stumbled over rubble, carrying single bones nearly shorn of flesh and shredded body parts barely identifiable as human. Amid a swirling crowd of rescuers, two young men embraced and wept. A man in a baseball cap pointed out crumpled buildings that, he said, crushed women, children and elderly people sheltering there. An infant in a pink shirt lay motionless, then opened its eyes. "God is great," said a rescuer, cradling the baby in his arms.
Maarat al Noaman's reversal of fortune highlights the dark turn that Syria's civil war has taken in recent months, as fighting intensifies and the government and insurgents remain locked in an increasingly bloody stalemate, Syrian residents and military analysts said.
When rebels declare a town liberated, President Bashar Assad's government no longer makes much effort to retake territory, they said. Now, it sends overwhelming force with one objective — to destroy and level all that is left behind.
Regaining and maintaining control requires resources the government, stretched on many fronts by the 19-month conflict, cannot afford, said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "So," he added, "they actually have no problem completely destroying it."
Gutting and abandoning towns rather than trying to govern them shifts responsibility for reconstruction and relief onto the shoulders of the underequipped rebels, breeding frustration, Hokayem said, a tactic that suggests the government has given up on winning the trust of its people.
"They're not after regaining the hearts of the population," he said. "The calculation is that what's needed is for the population to start resenting the rebels, not to start liking the Assad regime again."
In Maarat al-Noaman over the past week, rebels attempted to provide some services. They tried to distribute bread after the government shelled bakeries, activists said, a tactic used in several cities, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. But some of those efforts appeared ad hoc and rudimentary: an anti-government video showed boys, girls and adults lining up as men handed out bread from the trunk of a small white sedan.
Abu Ahmed, the commander of a group of fighters from the nearby village of Sinbol, said in a Skype interview Thursday that kerosene supplies had sunk so low in the town that rebels had to form a committee to keep people from cutting down olive trees for fuel.
An even thornier problem arose that one rebel commander said had left his brigade "seriously confused": how to manage the scores of government soldiers captured in the rebel offensive.
"We don't know what we're going do with them," the commander, who asked that his name not be used and claimed to be holding 600 prisoners, said in a Skype interview Tuesday. Even feeding them "one loaf, tomato or potato" a would be too expensive, he said. "We don't have food even to feed our families."
But if the prisoners were released, he said, they might rejoin the army or pro-government militias. He said he was beginning to wish they had died in the fighting.
Yet the battle exposed weaknesses and strengths on both sides. While the destruction Thursday renewed questions about the rebels' tactic of seizing territory, their earlier victory showed their growing capability and the strain on government forces. Rebels said they had been able to seize for a time all the checkpoints between Maarat al-Noaman and Khan Sheikhoun, 10 miles to the south along the north-south highway that is the main artery between Damascus and Aleppo.
Lt. Ahmad Haleeb, a rebel officer, said in an interview that he had fought with more than 150 troops and that they had killed 65 soldiers and captured seven in a fight for a checkpoint.
On Thursday, the government said it was pushing rebels out of the town. SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported that the army was "cleaning" the area and had "killed a large number of terrorists." It said the army had uncovered caves and tunnels storing weapons, and had destroyed heavy weapons as well as 60 bombs.
But Abu Ahmed, the commander, said rebels still controlled one side of town and aimed to control routes to Aleppo and north to Saraqeb, Idlib and Turkey.