Photo by/JAN KALAN
Syrian warplanes have bombed the northern city of Raqqa, hours after reports said rebels had overrun it, activists and residents say.
Activists said at least 20 rebels and a civilian, and an unconfirmed number of troops, were killed in air strikes and in fresh fighting there.
Rebels captured the provincial governor when they routed regime forces in the city on Monday.
If the city falls it would mark a significant victory for the rebels.
“The centre of the city is being bombarded by warplanes. I counted 60 rockets,” Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed resident as saying.
Government forces had been sent to retake the city, Sharif Shihada, a member of the Syrian parliament, told al-Jazeera television, Reuters said.
Rebels had taken control of most of Raqqa but there were still pockets of resistance, including inside the intelligence building in the city, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group, said 20 rebel fighters and “tens of regular soldiers” were killed in fighting on Tuesday, while a civilian was shot dead by a sniper.
The SOHR said there were reports of further casualties from air strikes.
The SOHR is one of the most prominent organisations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. The group says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.
Unverified video footage purported to show at least two explosions hitting the city centre square, shortly after crowds had toppled a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
People were seen fleeing in panic, with casualties scattered on the ground.
The cameraman is heard to say: “War plane shelling… God is greater than you, Bashar [al-Assad]… The injured have fallen.”
Raqqa, situated on the Euphrates River near the Turkish border, has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled the violence in other parts of the country.
According to Reuters, some residents had pleaded with rebels not to enter the city, fearing it would bring retribution from government forces.
The air base is located near the northeastern town once known as Tabqa. The town’s name changed to Thawra, Arabic for revolution, after the al-Furat dam was built there in the late 1960s.
Rebels led by the al-Qaida-linked militant group Jabhat al-Nusra captured the dam on Monday, taking control over water and electricity supplies for both government-held areas and large swaths of land the opposition has captured over the past 22 months of fighting.
While the rebels control many areas in the north and east of the country, and hold whole neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and its main commercial hub, the government maintains a tight grip on Damascus, and several central provinces, including Homs and Hama.
For nearly a week, the rebels have been trying to storm the capital from neighborhoods and towns on its doorstep, and have punched to within a mile of the heart of the city, inching closer to the seat of Assad’s power.
Activists said government warplanes carried out air raids on opposition strongholds in several Damascus suburbs Monday, including Zamalka and Douma.
Late on Monday, rebels fought their way into governor Hassan Jalili’s palace, taking him and the ruling Baath party’s secretary general for Raqqa province, Suleiman Suleiman, captive.
Amateur video appeared to show the two men seated, surrounded by jubilant rebels.
“All we want is to get rid of the regime,” a voice is heard telling the two captives.
The SOHR described Mr Jalili’s seizure as “the highest profile capture by rebels of a regime official”.
The camera held by a member of the Syrian opposition in the town of Talbiseh north of Homs pans the walls of the local school, documenting the destruction. In a small classroom, young children sit on the floor, wrapped in layers of clothing but still shivering from the cold. An oil heater sits in the middle of the room, idle for lack of fuel. The walls are haphazardly constructed, made of exposed cinderblock.
The dark hallway floors are full of debris, twisted pieces of steel and plaster fragments through which the children make their way to their classrooms. Another classroom is more orderly, with desks and chairs, but the windows have been blown out. Some are covered with plastic sheeting that doesn’t keep out the cold wind.
The Syria Red Crescent emergency aid worker who made the film brings a few small presents for the children: a drawing book, pencils and a few clothes. He asks what they want him to bring on his next visit. “Desks,” a boy suggests. “A backpack,” a girl says quietly, “and also paints.”
According to reports from aid organizations, more than 3,800 schools have been destroyed in the fighting in Syria, and many others are serving as military command posts, makeshift hospitals or prisons for President Bashar Assad’s regime. Some also serve as shelters for those displaced by the war — housing about 650,000 people.
Talbiseh is a small town of about 40,000. At least that’s how many people lived there until last week’s bombardment by the Syrian army. The town is controlled by the opposition Free Syrian Army and also shelters a branch of the Revolutionary Command Council, which in January chalked up a major accomplishment when its fighters brought down a Syrian MiG fighter jet.
The response was not long in coming. Deadly aerial bombardment and artillery shelling hit hundreds of homes in the town and killed dozens of civilians. The next day, hundreds of civilians took to the streets in protest not only of Assad and his regime but also of other Arab countries who have offered no assistance and of apathy in the West.
“Arab leaders have stolen your loaf of bread. Then they gave you a slice of it ordering you to thank them for their generosity. How shameless they are,” the website of the Homs district revolutionary council says, quoting Palestinian poet Ghassan Kanafani. The council is responsible for, among other things, managing daily life in Talbiseh.
“Daily life” is a fluid concept. Most tasks fall to civilians, who organize local volunteer councils that arrange for local policing, social welfare services and even courts. The councils don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Free Syrian Army.
According to the New York Times, the local council in one northern Syrian town was forced to fight the Free Syrian Army command for basic supplies. It ultimately managed to win daily rations of two pitas a day for each adult resident and four hours a day of electricity. It was a minor accomplishment but enough to afford the council legitimacy. But when residents hauled off the remains of a Syrian tank, hoping to sell it to scrap dealers for a little cash, Free Syrian Army soldiers stopped them, ordering the tank be left as a monument to their military victory.
It’s hard to fathom the well-spring of determination that feeds the town and the hundreds of others like it, which continue to fight and demonstrate amid bombing runs and shelling. The text on the Talbiseh Facebook page provides no explanation. But perhaps the answer can be found in the photographs of vast destruction and deceased residents. Talal al-Akidi, Iyad al-Akidi, Khaled Salem Suwais and Omar al-Masri, are all memorialized on the Internet, which will serve as a moral ledger when a new regime takes control of Syria and scores begin to be settled.
“These are small towns. Everyone knows everyone else. If your son served in Assad’s army, your family immediately becomes suspect. If your daughter was killed in the regime’s bombardments, you become a hero,” Ali Othman, a Syrian refugee in Turkey explained to a Turkish journalist. “You can’t permit yourself not to turn out for demonstrations or identify with bereaved families. You take to the streets even at risk to your life. Otherwise you can’t show your face in public.” Othman’s home has already been taken over by the Free Syrian Army and he doesn’t know if he will ever get it back.
The residents of Talbiseh don’t concern themselves with failed international consultations designed to bring down the Assad regime. They don’t follow the movements of the United Nations envoy on the Syrian conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, and they are not asked their opinion of opposition leader, Moaz al-Khatib, who is having difficulty establishing a provisional Syrian government.
Those left in the town just try to stay alive for another day. It is doubtful that the $60 million in additional aid pledged by the United States will reach the local school that was destroyed or the bakery that is still trying to supply bread. The money will go to the leadership of the opposition and the commanders of the Free Syrian Army and be used mostly to buy weapons or to fund airline tickets for opposition leaders. The biggest bill will come later, when the country has to be reconstructed.
Copyright 2013. JAN KALAN/SYRIA