Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Syrian forces crush town that was seized by rebels

Syrians clamber over the rubble of buildings Thursday after government airstrikes killed dozens of people in Maarat al-Noaman.

Getty Images

Syrians clamber over the rubble of buildings Thursday after government airstrikes killed dozens of people in Maarat al-Noaman.

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.

Syrian refugees pour into Egypt

The U.N. refugee agency said Thursday the number of Syrian refugees who have fled their country's civil war and found shelter in Egypt has now topped 150,000 — a significant jump from last month's figure of 95,000. A U.N. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, suggested Syria's neighbors who have taken in refugees — Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan — are "reaching (the) saturation point," prompting an influx into Egypt, where the cost of living is cheaper. Syria's violence has sent more than 340,000 people fleeing across its borders, says the U.N. humanitarian office.

Associated Press.

Syrian forces crush town that was seized by rebels 10/18/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 18, 2012 11:15pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, New York Times.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. After offseason of work hard, play hard, DeSean Jackson ready to produce for Bucs


    TAMPA — There's no telling what DeSean Jackson will do once he gets a football in his hands. Perhaps that's why a camera crew followed his every move Wednesday while the Bucs' new $30 million receiver stood on a step of the hot tub that empties into a spacious, azure pool at his new, sprawling five-bedroom home in …

    DeSean Jackson jokes around with girlfriend Kayla Phillips at their Tampa home as a crew from HBO’s Hard Knocks documents their day.
  2. Trump announces $10 billion Foxconn plant in Wisconsin


    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that electronics giant Foxconn will build a $10 billion factory in Wisconsin that's expected to initially create 3,000 jobs, the largest economic development project in state history.

    President Donald Trump embraces Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the East Room of the White House during an announcement Wednesday that Foxconn is going to build a plant in Wisconsin.
  3. Playoff chase heats up for Rays with key series at Yankees up first (w/ video)

    The Heater


    It was important that Evan Longoria crushed a two-run homer in the sixth inning Wednesday and Steven Souza Jr. blasted a solo shot off the farthest catwalk an inning later.

    Adeiny Hechavarria (11) and Tim Beckham (1) celebrate the double play to end the top of the sixth inning. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
  4. Conservatives come to Sessions' defense amid Trump attacks


    WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans and influential conservatives rallied around Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday as President Donald Trump kept up his public pelting of the nation's top law enforcement officer and left his future in doubt.

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions
  5. Jones: Alex Cobb proves again why he's Rays' stopper, no matter how long he's here (w/ video)

    The Heater


    If a team hopes to hang around the pennant race, it better have an ace. A stopper. A pitcher it can count on every fifth day to stop the bleeding, keep a winning streak going or flat-out win a game that a team flat-out needs to win.

    Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) throwing the first inning. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]