With a United Nations-sponsored peace plan nearly one month old, Syrian soldiers in the country’s north say rebel forces trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad are continuing to launch attacks on their positions daily in apparent violation of a cease-fire and are strong enough that government troops cannot enter several towns and villages near this city.
The soldiers, who were interviewed by a McClatchy correspondent traveling with U.N. monitors, described attacks that had taken place every day this week. Gunfire and explosions could be heard after dark on Tuesday in Idlib and into early Wednesday morning, testimony to ongoing fighting. On Wednesday, soldiers manning a checkpoint outside the town of Ariha, south of Idlib, showed reporters damage to an armored personnel carrier that they said was caused by a bomb planted on a nearby road last week.
“I know 17 soldiers who have died in the last two or three months,” said Ahmed, who asked that he be identified by a single name only because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “We can’t leave the city unless we are in armored vehicles.”
“For six months we have not been able to enter Ariha,” said another soldier, who asked that he be identified only as Mazen because he, too, had not been given permission to talk to visiting journalists. “Today there was an attack on every checkpoint here. Last night they attacked a checkpoint and detonated a bomb.”
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It was impossible to verify the soldiers’ claims. U.N. monitors, who have been allowed to travel largely unimpeded throughout Syria since the cease-fire went into effect April 12, made no public comment on what they heard in meetings with the soldiers’ commanders. The monitors did not speak to the interviewed soldiers themselves, though they did speak with other soldiers.
The soldiers’ assertions provide a counterbalance of sorts to a steady stream of reports of government cease-fire violations that have been detailed in news accounts that are based largely on information gleaned from opposition sympathizers and rebel sources. Most reports on the violence in Syria are compiled outside the country because the Syrian government does not routinely grant visas to international journalists seeking to report here.
Even those who have been given visas in recent days, including this correspondent, find their movements restricted, with warnings that they face arrest if they work without an escort provided by the Ministry of Information.
That policy, however, does not apply when journalists travel with the U.N. monitors, and the rare interviews with on-duty government soldiers took place without Syrian authorities present.
In those talks, the soldiers described their rebel enemies as capable, able to ambush Syrian army units, maneuver in relatively large groups and plot coordinated attacks, despite the lack of heavy weaponry. The rebels have been effective enough in inflicting casualties in close combat that government forces frequently resort to shelling urban areas from the edges as they seek to dislodge armed opponents. The result has been a tragic toll on populations that support the guerrillas or, in some cases, simply live in areas where the rebels operate. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced as entire villages, towns and neighborhoods have been destroyed.
That seems to have spurred even more rebel recruitment as friends or family of those killed or jailed by the government decide to join the guerrillas. New groups of rebels post videos online regularly announcing their formation.
Ahmed, who described himself as a member of a special operations unit who had volunteered for military duty, was interviewed in the city of Idlib. Mazen agreed to talk at a checkpoint outside the city. Neither expressed any sympathy for the rebels. “The intelligence services know their names and they will be killed,” Mazen said.
Ahmed and other soldiers denied that they had ever opened fire on peaceful protests, but they readily acknowledged that members of their units had defected and that they had killed army defectors when they were located.
“Four months ago, the commander of our unit defected and started an armed group,” Ahmed said, using a term the government uses to refer to the rebels.
Ahmed said that on Tuesday morning, a group of as many as 50 fighters attacked a checkpoint on the road into Idlib and detonated a bomb as reinforcements arrived. He said that two soldiers were wounded and six rebels killed.
Ahmed and other soldiers in Idlib said there had been explosions in the city on Monday, when Syrians voted for a new Parliament.
“Many people didn’t vote because they were afraid,” Ahmed said.
Supporters of the anti-Assad uprising called for a boycott of the vote and said it was observed in many areas. In some places, polls didn’t open at all. Both sides have accused each other of threatening people who refused to go to the polls or supported the boycott.
Mazen listed nine towns and villages in the area around Idlib where soldiers were unable to go. He said the pace of attacks had remained steady for months as the army continued its campaign against the rebels.
Idlib itself, a city of about 150,000, was out of government control for months before the Syrian military retook it in March. Despite a heavy military presence here, attacks have continued, including a car bombing that destroyed a six-story building in late April.
Ahmed said the violence in Syria amounted to a civil war. Asked about the motivations of the men they were fighting, Ahmed said that the rebels wanted to destabilize Syria. He did not repeat government claims, however, that many of the rebels are foreigners, and most of the soldiers agree that the opponents they face are Syrian.
The Syrian government news agency, SANA, reported that three members of the military killed by rebels were buried on Wednesday. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that more than 11,000 people have been killed in the past 14 months, the majority of them civilians.