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Outgunned Syria rebels turn to homemade bombs

As Syria government forces launch brutal attacks on rebel-held towns in Idlib province, the insurgents increasingly depend on a campaign of bombings and kidnappings.

April 01, 2012|By Los Angeles Times Staff

And indeed, four days later the army began shelling Sarmeen in the early morning. By the afternoon, soldiers had come into the village. Rebels said they were able to blow up five tanks with their bombs, but they were forced to flee, and the army burned many homes and killed about 17 residents.

"It is called the game of the mouse playing against the elephant. This is the only way we are able to fight them. What's a rifle against a tank?" said Abu Adeeb, 39, who carries a 9-millimeter gun and a quick temper with him wherever he goes.

This new weapon presents religious quandaries for the rebels. They consulted with religious leaders for direction and were told they can't plant the bombs near homes or detonate them if they know civilians are nearby. But if civilians are inadvertently killed, the sheiks told them, the rebels will not be liable and casualties will be considered martyrs.

For a while the rebels here used donkeys, strapping bombs to the animals and blowing them up as they neared army checkpoints, said Abu Zidan, a fighter with the Northern Villages Militia in the village of Jarjanaz, dressed entirely in brown camouflage.

"Then they began killing all the donkeys, and now there aren't any left in Idlib," Abu Zidan said with a chuckle.


Yet as they increasingly rely on homemade bombs to destroy tanks, the rebels continue their piecemeal attacks on checkpoints and transports, kidnapping a few soldiers or security officers at a time.

On a recent afternoon, on a steep road in the village of Sarjeh, rebel fighters buzzed around a house after kidnapping six men at a checkpoint: four young security officers and two drivers. The young men — their hands bound behind their backs, all of them wearing jeans and stylish white shirts — were slapped and dragged into a living room, where they were lined up against the wall and questioned.

"I'm a driver, I swear, I'm just a driver," begged the taxi driver, a chubby man with fear in his eyes. Beside him, the second driver buried his face in a pile of mattresses and blankets.

"Don't you know what is happening in Idlib? Bodies being burned, people being thrown from buildings and killing of children?" asked Abu Hamaam, a rebel dressed in a black-and-red track suit. "The revolution has been going on for a year; why have you not defected yet? Don't you have a TV? Don't you see what is happening?"

It is with these foot soldiers that the regime continues to kill, said Sheik Abu Issa, who worked in tiles and ceramics before the uprising. By kidnapping a few of them at a time — or even a driver delivering food — the rebels slowly chip away at the government's offensive abilities, he said.

The fates of the hostages vary. If there is proof that a hostage killed civilians, rebels say, he faces execution. Some join the rebel ranks, and others are released, but only after enough time has passed for their commanding officers to believe they have defected, making it impossible for the soldiers to return to the army.

Later that day in the cellar, with a low roof and dirty, hay-covered mattresses on the ground, sat seven men, including the six taken at a checkpoint, still bound and blindfolded. Abu Adeeb crawled in and grabbed one of the young men, a member of the government security forces in the city of Idlib. In June, Abu Adeeb was arrested and was held by those forces for more than a week.

"You dog, you broke my ribs, you dog," he said, punching the hostage in the chest as the young man let out muffled whimpers. "This is for when they broke my ribs."

He continued to punch and slap him as the hostage begged.

Sheik Abu Issa knelt down in front of the taxi driver, "Listen, you are going to talk when we ask you, or else one bullet, one bullet, right here," he said, pointing at his temple.


The rebels here and across the country increasingly find themselves on the run, even from an army stretched thin. The dire situation has worsened problems and rifts among a beleaguered and ramshackle opposition.

In a revolution for the sake of democracy, the rebels are plagued with too many wanting to be leaders and too few wanting to follow. Not uncommonly, a disagreement in the ranks of one militia results in fighters breaking off to form their own armed group.

That happened in the city of Idlib, where an estimated 5,000 fighters were divided among more than 10 militias, many working on their own. When the army invaded there in March, there was no coordination and the weak defense they launched collapsed when their ammunition ran out. By the third day all the rebels had withdrawn, fleeing in every direction into the suburbs.

Now self-appointed leader Mazen Arja, an agricultural engineer and father of three, spends his days driving from safe house to safe house trying to account for the rebels and, in some cases, patch up internal rifts. On the day that homes in their city were being raided and burned, the rebels held a meeting miles away to try to reconcile their ranks.

It is a scenario that is playing out repeatedly here: The army and security forces sweep into village after village, leaving behind bodies and burned homes, and the routed rebels must regroup.

"We have to organize anew and figure out who was killed and bring people together to begin the liberation of the northern region," Arja said. "If we're not patient and fight, we're all dead anyway."

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