Battle for strategic Syrian town shows why war has displaced millions

Late in August, when world attention was focused on the poison gas attack near Damascus, Syrian government forces were waging an intense assault against a small rebel-held town 150 miles to the north.

The spotlight never touched on Ariha, south of Idlib, even after Sept. 3, when Syrian state media announced that the government had “cleansed” the town of “terrorist gangs.” But the two-week battle helps illuminate why Syria’s civil war has created such a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

To “cleanse” the town, government helicopters dumped dozens of “barrel bombs” – improvised explosive devices filled with shrapnel and varying in size from a large pipe to a garbage Dumpster – on houses and shops, multiple witnesses told McClatchy. Tanks and howitzers fired into the town, and the army also fired mortars, gravity bombs, vacuum bombs and cluster bombs.

Outgunned and low on ammunition, the rebels gave up. They and around 70,000 civilians fled to other towns and to Turkey, and that may have been the aim of the operation. The United Nations now estimates that 6.8 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, and outside experts say the number may be as high as 10 million.

What’s remarkable about the battle for Ariha, which sits astride a strategic government resupply route, is that few outside Syria were aware of it. Neither the U.N. nor most international nongovernmental organizations, nor even the most widely quoted Syrian monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported on the battle.

One reason may be that for two and a half years the town was surrounded by government troops and penetrated by government informers, and possession of a photo on a telephone led to arrest and torture for the person with the phone and his family, activists from the town say. During the long siege, almost no news got out of Ariha.

Ariha is a case study in Syria’s hidden war, in which government forces besiege towns and villages sympathetic to the rebels, fire on them with their heaviest weapons, then send in ground troops for a brutal “cleansing.”

The assaults have forced hundreds of thousands from their homes to seek food and shelter with relatives, in schools or makeshift camps or abroad as refugees. Similar “cleanings” are underway in two other strategically located towns in northern Syria – Saraqeb, southeast of Idlib, and Safira, southeast of Aleppo – according to reports. In addition, Human Rights Watch has closely tracked government operations, starting in July 2012, to bulldoze or blow up entire neighborhoods in Damascus and Hama dominated by rebels and their sympathizers.

“What happened in Ariha is a small version of what is happening everywhere in Syria,” said Abu Ahmed, a 46-year-old former Ariha government official who’d fled to Reyhanli, Turkey, on the border with Syria, and who asked to be identified by an Arabic nickname that means “Ahmed’s father.” “The army goes in, attacks the people, kills the people who stay behind, then fires on the people who are fleeing. Then it takes control of everything in the area. It destroys everything.”

Rebel participants in the battle in Ariha say it was fought not by the foreign extremists who increasingly dominate the anti-Assad movement, but by residents who were prepared to die to defend their families and bring down the Assad government. It came against a backdrop of more than a year of rebel harassment of Syrian military convoys on the highway and deadly attacks on government checkpoints that had begun to take shape as early as the middle of 2011.

The battle involved about 600 anti-government fighters from four groups, including the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, working from a single operations room, according to Abu Muataz Billah, 23, a rebel commander interviewed in Reyhanli. They faced at least 1,000 Syrian army troops, augmented by militias, Iranians and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, they said.

The death toll, according to town officials and the rebel commander, was 130 civilians and about 80 rebels. As many as 150 government fighters died, they said. About 600 townspeople were wounded, and the death toll among the civilians might be higher, rebels said, because many might have been trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Satellite photos obtained by McClatchy and Human Rights Watch show heavy destruction in several parts of the town.

Ariha is only one of dozens of towns and cities under government siege, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and its location on a key supply route makes it all the more vulnerable. “That’s the pattern,” said Donatella Rovera, senior investigator for Amnesty International. “Areas taken by the rebels get pounded, and the more they are strategically located, the more they get pounded.”

Battles such as this receive little news coverage. Reporting from rebel-held areas has come largely to a halt following a surge in kidnappings by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, an al Qaida group whose influence has spread throughout northern Syria. Reporters’ only alternative is to report from Damascus, if the Syrian government will grant a visa, and that provides little access to rebel-held zones.

After receiving a tip that the regime had dropped an enormous number of “barrel bombs” on a thickly populated town, McClatchy sought out witnesses from Ariha and surrounding villages to reconstruct the story. The U.S. government had few details on the fighting and the U.N. doesn’t closely follow the war in this part of Syria. More than a month after the government’s proclaimed victory, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it had no information about the fighting in Ariha.

But the humanitarian impact of the battle seems likely to have been enormous.

Ariha, surrounded by olive and fruit groves, is a typical Syrian farming town, with no manufacturing other than small clothing producers. Its distinction is its location aside the M4 highway, which crosses Idlib province from the cities of Idlib and Aleppo, in the neighboring province of the same name, to the port of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast. It’s an important route for transporting supplies from the port to military bases in Idlib and Aleppo and supporting two Shiite Muslim towns northeast of Idlib.

“This is the only road linking the Mediterranean coast with Idlib and Aleppo,” Abu Ahmed said. “I reckon that the regime, even if it has to kill every single person in Ariha and every village around it, will not let go of Ariha.”

Ariha’s politics were decidedly anti-government when anti-Assad demonstrations began in southern Syria on March 15, 2011. Ariha’s first protest came on April 22 that year, when townspeople pulled down the statue of Assad’s late father, President Hafez Assad, at a major traffic circle. It was the first town in northern Syria to see such action.

The anti-government mood sharpened after a peaceful march by tens of thousands of residents from around the Idlib countryside on May 20, 2011. They gathered in Ariha and carried olive branches toward Idlib, chanting the familiar “The people want the regime to fall,” as well as “No Iran and no Hezbollah, we want a state that fears Allah.” When they moved within range of the military base at the town of Mastouma, soldiers opened fire, killing at least 11 people, witnesses said.

“That day changed my life,” said Nourlddin Abdu, 25, a retail clerk from Ariha. “After that, people decided we had to carry weapons. We all began selling what we had in order to buy a Kalashnikov.”

Abu Ahmed said this effectively launched the insurgency in Ariha. Attacks on government installations followed, including on police stations.

In June that year, regime forces attacked Ariha with artillery, followed by a ground assault, during which the minarets of its ancient mosque were destroyed. They briefly occupied the town and set up checkpoints, then surrounded and besieged it, blocking nearly all routes in and out of it. On Jan. 7, 2012, Assad loyalists attacked the town of Mastouma, killing 75 people – apparently in response to rebel attacks on military convoys.

In early 2012, the military also began shelling or bombing villages around Ariha, townspeople said, culminating in an attack on Nahliya, another strategic village on the M4 highway. As the shelling continued, villagers began to flee to the homes of friends or relatives or to camps for the displaced in Syria or in Turkey.

Abdul Halim Alawi, a schoolteacher from the nearby city of Jisr al Shughour, recalled that at some point early in the year the attacks intensified. “There were 10 rockets in one go, instead of artillery,” he said.

After months of such pressures, the four local rebel groups began coordinating closely on a response. In addition to the Nusra Front, there were representatives from two Islamist brigades, Ahrar al Sham and Shuhada Souriya, and a secular one affiliated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, Suqour al Sham.

The rebels’ first goal was to close the main road.

“We are in different brigades but we are all sons of the villages,” said Usama Abu Sayf, 30, a painter and plasterer from the village of Kafr Zeeba, near Ariha, who’s a commander in Suqour al Sham.

The brigades mounted an operation at Basnqoul, a village west of Ariha, on June 19 this year. “We closed the road and killed some soldiers,” Abu Sayf said. The government mounted a fierce counterattack with its aircraft – “maybe 28 hits in one day,” Abu Sayf recalled – and the rebels withdrew.

Abu Sayf said the army had followed up by occupying Basnqoul and nearby Kafr Shalaya, committing “horrible massacres” and expelling the residents. The cleansing had begun.

The army then entered Urum al Joz, a village that straddles the highway, and ordered its residents to leave. The soldiers continued to two other villages, Maatrim and Kafr Najd, where they massacred residents, expelled the population, and burned and looted the houses, Abu Sayf said. Each of these villages had a nominal population of at least 5,000, though some were swollen by internally displaced people and others had lost population because of the military pressure.

The most devastating blow to Ariha came on July 17. It was Ramadan, the month of daylong fasting, and townspeople had turned out by the thousands at Ariha’s main market at 4 p.m. to purchase food for the Iftar, the post-sundown breaking of the fast.

“I was riding my bike, parked it and was inside a shop when a mortar fell about five meters away,” said Ghazal, 23, a student activist who works in the opposition’s Ariha media office. Ghazal, who was interviewed by Skype from Syria and telephone from Turkey, asked to be identified only by his first name.

“I was in shock. I didn’t move,” he said. “There was a huge noise of screaming. People feared another mortar would land in the same place.” Thirty people lay dead on the ground, he said. “There were corpses without limbs, people with their heads severed, old people, children, women, shopkeepers.”

The town had no ambulance and no hospitals, because the military had burned down its three clinics, he said. “All we had were motorbikes. We could take people to mobile clinics to be bandaged up, but that was all we could do,” Ghazal said. As many as 20 more townspeople died of their wounds in the days that followed. The mayhem is documented in YouTube videos.

That same day the army attacked Nahliya, which was partly under rebel control.

The bombardment began at 6 a.m., said Suleyman, a former civil servant who also asked to be identified only by his first name. Aerial bombardment stepped up in the early afternoon, and by evening the town had taken more than 250 rocket and mortar hits, as well as four barrel bombs that destroyed 11 houses, he said. Those residents who hadn’t pulled out before the bombardment fled.

“There’s nobody left,” Suleyman said.

Kafr Najd, the home village of Abu Ahmed, the former Ariha government official, was the next village to be “cleansed.” The assault began Aug. 2 with 24 hours of intense artillery bombardment and air attacks that included barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, he said.

On Aug. 3, ground troops entered the town. They seized a neighbor in his house and executed him in his front garden. “They pulled his sweater over his head and fired three times at his head,” Abu Ahmed said. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

Abu Ahmed’s two sons went outside to see what was happening, and found themselves pushed against the wall of the house and threatened with execution. Abu Ahmed managed to talk the soldiers out of it. But he said six other townspeople were executed.

The family fled in the clothes they were wearing on motorbikes to Assadiya, the next village, where nearly everyone from Kafr Najd had gone. Abu Ahmed said they were shelled along the way. “They were trying to kill us,” he said. His 19-year-old son recalled that five people who were fleeing on a small tractor – a man, two women and two children – were killed in the barrage.

The killing continued in Kafr Najd the next day, Abu Ahmed said. “Only old people and the sick stayed behind, and whoever was in their house died,” he said. Abu Muataz Billah, the rebel commander interviewed in Reyhanli, said the military had poured gasoline on a woman and her six children and set them on fire, and had tied several men together and thrown them down a well. Then the army set up a multiple rocket-launch position to rain fire into the town.

The town’s four rebel groups devised a bold plan to retaliate: Seize control of Ariha and shut down the supply route altogether. They were sure they could capture the major checkpoints.

But lacking a single dominant leader, the fighters had no plan for staying in control when the military struck back. The rebels called the operation, “Breaking the Chains of Ariha the Steadfast.”

The operation began at dawn Aug. 9 in complete radio silence. With a common operations room, the groups took control of half the city within a few hours, killing members of the Alawite Shabiha militia, said Abu Muataz Billah, a law student who commanded a squad of 24 men.

They started by capturing a key government checkpoint where the southern edge of Ariha met the rebel-held hills of Jabal al Arbaeen, capturing six tanks and an armored personnel carrier. Advancing around the western edge of the town, they took out several government checkpoints and finally reached the highway, which they closed. Not until they’d captured every checkpoint but one and effectively controlled the city did they announce the offensives, on Aug 19.

On Aug. 21, the regime struck back.

The government’s first two forays into Ariha were costly, according to Abu Muataz Billah. It lost as many as 50 fighters, but then it stepped up the bombardment and inflicted heavy losses on the rebels, killing possibly 40 on the third day, he said. Regime forces marched into other villages and used them as bases for artillery attacks.

The worst day of bombing came Aug. 25.

“Twenty barrel bombs were dropped from helicopters, and there were more than 200 rockets,” Abu Muataz Billah said. “Over 70 houses were destroyed on that day.”

The wounded couldn’t be treated, and it was impossible to dig out people who’d been crushed in the collapse of apartment buildings, he said.

With the rebels in disarray, the army threatened to step up its attack on the city. The rebels withdrew, “for the safety of civilians, and in order to preserve the town,” Abu Muataz Billah said. Government forces mounted a ground sweep, in which soldiers tortured and executed some of the stragglers. Militias looted the town, witnesses said

Of all the destructive weapons, barrel bombs struck the most fear into those on the ground. “I was stationed in a trench when a helicopter flew over us,” said Abu Mohammad, 37, a fighter with the Nusra Front. “We heard a roar that was like a MiG warplane, and it grew and grew and then the explosion happened, producing a cloud of dust and black smoke. I looked around, and some of my friends had lost limbs. I could no longer hear anything but ringing in my ears from the force of the explosion and the pressure.”

“People tell me there’s not a single washing machine left,” said Dr. Najib Adel, a local physician who had his clinic burned by the army in September 2012. “They can take our washing machines, but don’t leave Assad.”

According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, almost all of Ariha’s 70,000 inhabitants were displaced to other locations in the Idlib governorate or abroad. Sixty to 70 percent of Ariha’s houses were destroyed, and the rest were looted. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said some families had returned to their shattered, looted homes in Ariha, chiefly because they had nowhere else to go.

Josh Lyons of Human Rights Watch in Geneva, who closely examined satellite photos that showed Ariha before and after the August onslaught, said he’d spotted instances of precision, targeted bombing but also many cases of seemingly random destruction, caused by howitzers, tanks and barrel bombs. He said there was a “high terror factor” in the use of such weapons: “The effect was more psychological than strategic or tactical.”

Humanitarian observers said they saw the Ariha offensive as a deliberate targeting of civilians in order to depopulate rebel-held areas. They cited as evidence that the army routinely attempts to kill those who flee the scene, and not just in Ariha.

The displacement is being repeated. Last week, government troops occupied Safira, which like Ariha lies on a crucial supply route and which had long been under rebel control. Nearly 130,000 people, almost all of them civilians, fled north, toward Turkey.

“What I find really shocking is that it seems to be a strategy to bomb civilian areas . . . not just military strategic locations,” said Jordan Davidoff, the emergency coordinator in Turkey for Doctors Without Borders. He said the government had even bombed displaced people at camps east of Safira; “not just a couple of bombs, but a shower of bombs.”

The same displacement is taking place at Saraqeb, a town of 40,000 southeast of Idlib that’s a key crossroads for military supplies flowing to Aleppo and Idlib. Still under rebel control, it’s been bombarded daily since late September, causing an exodus of its residents as well as people from other towns who’d sought refuge there.

“The refugees are now in the villages around the city, in the countryside, some in tents and some living in the open,” said Fuad Bilal, 60, who fled Saraqeb to Turkey when his house was bombed. “Those who still have homes wait for night to fall and sneak back into their homes like thieves.”

As Ariha’s former inhabitants seek out new shelter, the rebels are reviewing an operation that failed.

“In the beginning, we benefited from liberating Ariha after two and a half years of the regime’s control, and we took control over the supply route,” Abu Muataz Billah said. “We captured seven armored vehicles and we killed a number of regime troops. But unfortunately we lost Ariha,” and, in an even bigger setback, major parts of the Jabal al Arbaeen countryside they’d controlled.

“In hindsight, the losses were bigger than the gains,” he said.

And in the long term, the regime has won a strategic victory.

“Its aim is to hurt popular support of the FSA by making people afraid of the massacres,” he said, referring to the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army rebels. “People will say to the FSA, ‘Go away, because if the regime comes, it will massacre us.’ ” And that, he concluded, “will undermine the FSA.”

Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington..