QALAAT AL MUDIQ, Syria -- It’s been two months since anyone has seen a police officer in this central Syrian city.
Though the Syrian military occupies an ancient citadel overlooking Qalaat al Mudiq, it’s reached a truce with the Free Syrian Army rebel groups that control the city below. Residents and rebel leaders say the last time military forces attempted to enter the city was in March, but a pair of successful ambushes pushed them back to their base. The military doesn’t enter, shoot at or shell the town anymore, even though a rebel sniper recently killed a soldier who’d stood exposed too long in the citadel.
The Free Syrian Army, the moniker taken by most of the loosely organized militias that have taken up arms against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, kicked the police out of the city in September. The army tried to install a pair of police officers in the local station later, but the officers were promptly abducted by the rebels when the army withdrew. They were later released to their families after their families paid a ransom.
Amid a torrent of news coverage focused on massacres and sanctions, a major change in the Syrian political landscape has gone largely unremarked: All across northern and central Syria, in an area known as the Al Ghab Plain, a growing number of villages and towns effectively are outside government control.
In an area that stretches from the mountains around Jisr al Shughour in the north to the town of Salhab in the south, and east to the highway that links the cities of Hama and Idlib, rebels administer justice and provide local services, including the distribution of cooking gas and food. A United Nations cease-fire that was supposed to begin in April has never really taken effect, but in these safe havens, rebel fighters and sympathizers live largely outside Syrian military intervention. Syrian troops who patrol nearby do so in armored vehicles because of the threat of roadside bombs and ambushes.
The safe space has allowed rebels to stockpile and manufacture weapons and hold prisoners. It also provides a base from which the rebels move into other parts of the country that until now have been relatively quiet.
That dynamic was on display as recently as Tuesday, when fighting broke out in Al Haffa, a town near the city of Latakia on the Mediterranean Coast. Latakia remains a government stronghold, but rebels have pushed out of their areas to challenge the government in villages around the city. Twenty-two government soldiers were reported killed in the Al Haffa fighting, and rebels who fought there before withdrawing to the Al Ghab area said they had freed prisoners, abducted police officers and bulldozed the local police station and secret police offices before withdrawing under an intense attack from helicopter gunships.
“The army only controls the area directly under their tanks,” said Mohanned al Masri, a member of Ahrar al Sham, one of the groups based in the Al Ghab Plain and the primary supplier of rebel fighters at Al Haffa. “Here, the regime has already fallen.”
Ahrar al Sham also is manufacturing rockets in the area. “We are perfecting the accuracy now,” said Khalid al Amin, the leader of Ahrar al Sham in Qalaat al Mudiq.
In this town, the array of rebel forces is on display – as are the differences among them.
Ahrar al Sham draws its members from followers of a conservative strain of Islam known as Salafism; its followers see themselves as fighting in part for the right to preach their doctrine and the fall of a government that jailed them for doing so.
Another group, Suqor al Ghab, the largest in Qalaat al Mudiq, claims to be aligned with the largely secular Free Syrian Army leadership in Turkey. On Monday, its forces here were overseeing the distribution of cooking gas, which is in short supply across the country because of sanctions against Assad’s government.
The ironies of the ongoing war are also on display.
“I am still drawing my government check as a teacher,” said Mousab Al Hamadee, an anti-government activist here, smiling. The Syrian government continues to provide services such as electricity and water without interruption.
“Things are going on as usual, except that it became hard for Alawites to come to work,” said Amin, the Ahrar al Sham leader, referring to members of the Shiite Muslim sect that also includes Assad. Ahrar al Sham members, as Salafis, follow Sunni Islam. Amind said Alawites now fear retaliation from Sunnis for the support in Alawite villages for pro-government militiamen known locally as Shabiha.
On the outskirts of Qalaat al Mudiq, fighters from Ahrar al Sham lazily manned a checkpoint on the main road north to the city of Jisr al Shughour, whose outskirts are also outside of government control. Rebels who’d crossed the Turkish border en route to Jisr Al Shughour last week said that the army is entirely absent from the area. The army holds the center of Idlib, the largest city in northwestern Syria, but the edges of the city and the surrounding areas belong to the rebels.
To the west of the checkpoint, nestled in the foothills of Latakia Mountain, the Free Syrian Army’s control becomes more tenuous, as the Sunni-dominated area gives way to a string of villages populated largely by Alawites. Al Ramleh, a Sunni village to the west of here, had been largely emptied after the killings of a woman and four of her children by pro-government militiamen two weeks ago. Some months before, the nearby village of Tamana had suffered a similar fate, after a raid by the military and pro-government militiamen.
Nonetheless, the rebels here feel the momentum is strongly in their favor. They say they are getting better weapons, including armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenade rounds, as the volume of arms being smuggled into Syria from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey appears to have grown. Groups of fighters in the area are also building bombs and stockpiling small mortar rounds.
Amin said that Ahrar al Sham and the other rebel groups are making plans soon to rid the city of the army’s presence. The cease-fire with the army would end in mid-June, he said, when the wheat crop had been harvested.
“There will be a big war,” he said.