Syrians: 'We shall be free or we shall suffer'

Special report: Syrians brace themselves as war planes join the battle for Aleppo. Kim Sengupta reports from Al-Bab

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The Independent Online

Regime war planes were in action yesterday in what appeared to be yet another significant escalation in the Syrian civil war.

The Independent witnessed two fighter-bombers repeatedly appearing low overhead during the battle at the town of Al-Bab near Aleppo and, on at least two occasions, the aircraft appeared to be firing at the ground during the fighting.

This is the second time that Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has been accused of using war planes against its own people. During most of the sorties early yesterday evening, the pilots appeared to be carrying out what is known as “show of force” to intimidate the enemy by their presence without opening fire.

But several rebel fighters claimed they had been fired on directly from the air while they were attacking a military base on the outskirts of the town. Halid Al-Khaldi said: “I am not imagining this, there was a streak from the sky and then an explosion about 30 metres in front of us. We started running for cover, and we were shot at again by the plane.”

Fahad Abdullah added: “At first they were circling, but when the regime forces in the camp got into trouble the planes opened up.”

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who The Independent has accompanied on a number of occasions, opened fire with their Kalashnikov rifles at the aircraft in gestures of defiance, which were militarily futile and only served to draw attention to us. The aircraft may also have been directing sniper fire which came at a steady pace towards the rebel position.    

The war planes also marked an escalation on a day that began with violence. The shelling had started at 5.35am: mortar rounds followed by artillery, a deadly dawn chorus which has become only too familiar to the residents of Al-Bab. After a mid-morning break the attacks continued in the afternoon and the evening, salvoes fired at random into the town, tearing into homes and forcing people to flee as helicopter gunships flew overhead.

This satellite town acts as a shield for the revolutionaries locked in combat with the regime’s forces in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and commercial centre which has become such a symbolic and strategic prize in the bloody civil war.

The regime has repeatedly tried to push through reinforcements from the east for what the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper in Damascus declared would be “the mother of all battles”. The fighters of Al-Bab are on the way and have blocked the troops. But the rebels are being restricted from sending in men and desperately needed ammunition by the steady and lethal bombardment from a military post on the outskirts. The salvoes appear to be aimed at random: a mortar round landed on the street where we were staying, a neighbourhood with no obvious military targets.

Al-Bab is paying a heavy price for its defiance, with more than 100 people killed and a quarter of its population of 200,000 now refugees, either in outlying villages or across the border in Turkey. Among the latest to join them were Mohamed Attari and his family of 10, who left yesterday. Nine-year-old Muna and her brother, Abdul Khadar, 11, had been put to bed in the hallway of their home for reasons of safety. This was what saved them after a shell crashed through the ceiling into their bedroom. They have both grown used to the sound of explosions, but what happened yesterday morning was “very frightening”, whispered Muna, helping to carry out a mattress. “I started crying for my mother.”

Her father, a poultry farmer, had no doubt who was to blame. “It was the regime. They are doing this deliberately. You have seen what they have done! They are not hitting military targets, they are just trying to kill people. We have to fight them off; there is no other way,” he said. “We have to help each other, trust each other and also trust God.”

The people Mr Attari would not be expecting any help from, and certainly would not trust, are Western politicians. The Obama administration declared yesterday that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was planning to carry out a massacre in Aleppo, a similar sort of warning to the one given about the former Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi and the city of Benghazi. But that is where the similarity ends. No one expects a military intervention from the US or Europe. “Those in the West are just lying. They say these words, but they secretly support [the regime]. They will do nothing to help us, even if thousands more are killed,” said Mr Attari, shaking his head with contempt. His neighbour Ismail Ahmed Dosh, a 24-year-old student, looking at a hole created by a mortar round at his own home, added: “We expected more from the people in the West. They must know what is going on here.”

The uprising came late to Aleppo, a relatively prosperous part of the country. A common refrain from protesters in other parts of the country used to be: “Aleppo, where are you?” Demonstrations which started early in the year were initially peaceful, with little sign of the FSA, now the main fighting arm of the resistance.

That changed with the vicious reaction of the regime. In Al-Bab, the catalyst was the shooting by Assad’s troops on a demonstration on 20 April. The town’s first martyr was Amar Kamal Najar, a post-graduate engineering student who was shot dead after he complained about troops firing at the minaret of a mosque from which anti-Assad sermons were being broadcast. Two more protesters were shot dead, and four more died when their funeral came under fire. That was the catalyst which spread the flames of revolt in the region and has made Al-Bab integral to the struggle for Aleppo. Amar’s mother, Amira, said she was proud that her son was hailed as the “First Martyr” but the pain and suffering of her loss were still hard to bear.

“On that morning Amar said to me that he has had a dream in which he went to pray and then he was shot dead. I said to him, ‘my son, do not go out today’, but he told me it would be all right,” she recalled. “We later went to pray and we were told what had happened to him. My heart broke, but what could we do? He was gone.”

Amar’s father, Kamal Najar, started to cry each time he spoke of his son. Holding up a mobile telephone, he said: “This was the only weapon he was carrying when they killed him. It is their action which has started all this violence.”

As he spoke, more shells landed near by. “What is going on is terrible, but even this is better than Assad. It is too late to stop the war now. We shall either be free or we shall all suffer.”

Last night, Commander Zaher Sharkat, the chief of the FSA detachment at Al-Bab, was preparing to carry out an ambush on a couple of tanks. “We are on the way to help our comrades in Aleppo, but we must take care of the regime forces over here first. Once we have taken care of the armour and the military base we shall be on our way.”