Rebels who are fighting the Syrian government took control of a fourth border crossing with Turkey after killing or capturing the remaining government soldiers in the city of Ras al Ayn on Wednesday evening.
On Thursday, there were no airstrikes here for the first time in three days as the Syrian government apparently gave up holding the city, at least temporarily. Rebels who began fighting here a week ago said they’d rest for a few days and then push south, toward an army artillery base.
The bodies of five Syrian soldiers and militiamen lay on the side of a road on the southeast side of the city, shot by rebels as they tried to flee from an agricultural company the army had used as a base. Rebels surrounded the base in the city’s Asfar Najjar neighborhood a week ago, eventually leaving the soldiers without food and other supplies.
“We were prepared to fight against small groups, not so many rebels,” said a soldier who’d been captured at the base Wednesday. The man declined to give his name, but he described failed attempts by the military to resupply the trapped soldiers.
“They dropped food once and weapons twice from a helicopter, but each time they missed and the Free Army took the supplies,” the soldier said, using a moniker the rebels commonly use to refer to themselves.
“We started the attack with about 400 or 500 fighters,” said the commander of the Strangers of Damascus Battalions, the largest rebel group that’s fighting in Ras al Ayn, who used the nom de guerre Abu Qassem. “When the attack began, others joined us.”
Abu Qassem said negotiations with the army for the surrender of the base had broken down three times before the rebels stormed it Wednesday.
“The negotiations were just a tactic by the army to buy time,” Abu Qassem said.
Rebels said they’d captured heavy machine guns from the base but that the soldiers had rendered heavier weapons inoperable before the base was stormed. Residents said the rebels carted off anti-aircraft guns and artillery nonetheless.
Most of the residents of this city, which was once home to 50,000 people, fled during the fighting. According to the Turkish government, more than 15,000 sought refuge in Ceylanpinar, a Turkish city that’s directly across the border. On Thursday, those fleeing had slowed to a trickle compared with the more than 8,000 the Turkish government said had fled last Friday alone.
Civilians could be seen taking advantage of the quiet to retrieve belongings, though none appeared to be returning.
“We’ll come back if the shelling really has stopped,” said Maha Othman, a teacher who’d returned to Ras al Ayn to check on her house.
The city is the fourth border crossing with Turkey to come under rebel control since July. All four are controlled by independent rebel battalions rather than groups that belong to the Free Syrian Army, the rebels who are nominally commanded by Mustapha Sheikh, a defected Syrian army general who operates from a refugee camp in southeastern Turkey.
Turkish soldiers on the border allowed the movement of people, medical supplies and food across the border throughout the fighting, as well as providing early warning when Syrian planes were headed toward the city.
The capture of Ras al Ayn marked the first major rebel success in Hasaka province, which is home to the majority of Syria’s Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population. Ras al Ayn itself is a mix of Kurds, Arabs and ethnic Armenians.
Earlier this week, the two main Syrian Kurdish parties had asked the rebels to withdraw from Ras al Ayn and spare it from the artillery and airstrikes that had followed the rebel operation, and members of a militia that belongs to the United Democratic Party, the largest Kurdish party here, said they might fight if the rebels didn’t withdraw.
The vast majority of rebels who are fighting the government are Arabs, and there are grudges in Hasaka province that date to the confiscation of Kurdish-owned land by the Syrian government and subsequent redistribution to Arab farmers who were displaced from neighboring Raqqa province by a dam built in the 1970s.
But on Thursday, with the fighting over at least temporarily, calm appeared to reign. On the eastern side of the city, where the United Democratic Party’s militia had set up checkpoints, its party’s flag flew next to the rebels’ banner, and fighters from both sides passed freely through each other’s checkpoints.
Abu Qassem and other rebels promised safety for all residents returning to Ras al Ayn, regardless of their ethnicity.