Inside Syria's latest tragedy

Four days after the rebels took control of the Syrian city of Saraqeb, the regime's tanks rolled in

By James Foley

Published March 28, 2012 6:18PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

SARAQEB, Syria — Just four days ago the Free Syrian Army had total control of this city, the second-largest in Syria's northestern Idlib province.

Global Post

Then the tanks rolled in.

The Syrian regime's assault began March 24. It started in the same way it has so many times before — in the cities of Idlib, Homs, Hama and elsewhere — in this country gripped by more than a year of conflict.

A column of tanks first rolled into the city center, making precision strikes on roving bands of Free Syrian Army fighters.

The mishmash of Syrian army defectors, doctors and former shop owners had tangled with the tanks before and attempted to stop them. They would sneak up to the tanks at night to take pot shots and plant roadside bombs, neither of which had any effect.

At one point a strong-jawed youth proceeded down a parallel avenue, holding an antiquated rocket-propelled grenade launcher, the kind that still uses a chain link strap.

He darted around the corner into the "death zone," and launched a rocket that was unable to puncture the tank's front armor, where it is the strongest. Other fighters rolled out propane tank bombs attached to wires.

Despite their efforts, the tanks continued to shell the city, supported by snipers on rooftops.

By Monday, the Syrian forces had ousted the rebels and regained control of Saraqeb. The city is now on lockdown. No one is able to move in or out without passing through Syrian checkpoints — a risk few are willing to take.

"This is the second time in five months that tanks have entered the city," one rebel fighter told GlobalPost at the scene. "We have only God.”

Idlib Province and its cities are predominantly Sunni. Based on two weeks traveling through the province, most appear to support the rebels.

Outside the major cities, residents willing to speak to the press say they are fed up with President Bashar al-Assad and his government. In these parts, the rebels move freely.

But in recents weeks, Syrian security forces have attempted to retake the province, moving methodically from town to town. Earlier this month Syrian forces assaulted the city of Idlib, the largest in the province. That city too remains on lockdown. Few will go anywhere near it.

As Syrian forces moved to secure Saraqeb on Monday, rebel fighters packed their blankets, water pipes, and odd laptops and guns into trucks. Along with many families, including women and children, they sped off into the night. Red tracers flew overhead. Once safely outside, they slept in farms and small villages, plotting their return.

But with Saraqeb secure, activists still inside said they feared the "Shabiha" — plain-clothed mercenaries loyal to the regime. The Shabiha began patrolling the streets, rounding up anyone suspected of helping the Free Syrian Army. Activists said that as many as 40 people had so far been killed.

At a small hut outside the city that had been transformed into a field hospital, medics tended to an old woman with deep shrapnel wounds to her ankles and forearm. Another man arrived with shrapnel embedded in his backside. To their internet contacts, activists read off the names of seven killed that night. One activist said his wife and baby were still inside the city.

"All they can do is stay behind the doors," he said.

Activists outside of the country are concerned about house to house roundups, in search of those on their wanted lists.

"If they can't find the son, they'll take the father and hold him until the son comes," the activist, Nouri, said from Belgium. "The Shabiha want to take revenge."

These feared lists contain the names of protesters and rebel fighters — and anyone associated with them. Being on the wanted list can prevent whole villages from leaving their confines for fear of having to cross an army checkpoint and getting nabbed, activists said.

"They have the best database in the Middle East," Nouri said. "The last time I was in Syria in April, I found I was on the list. I thought I was helping anonymously, but my name was on the list from Idlib intelligence."

The small town of Seramin, about 20 kilometers away, might be an indicator of how Saraqeb will look after the Syrian security forces are done with it. A week ago, regime forces shelled Sermin before entering. Shells obliterated its mosque. And then Shabiha burned houses belonging to revolutionaries. Activists claim a handful of people were executed.

"Everyone listen," Nor Haj Hussein, a mother in mourning cried, pointing to a charred corner of her house. "They killed my three sons. They shot the three in the head, and after they burned them in front of my eyes."

James Foley

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