'What will happen to us?': Loyalists fear rebel attacks

In Aleppo, Kim Sengupta finds members of pro-Assad tribes hiding behind closed doors in fear of revenge raids

Sitting in a room in his flat darkened by drawn curtains, Abdul Fawaz al-Jais flinched every time he heard shots. He almost jumped when there was loud and prolonged shouting outside. At the sound of a helicopter, however, he raised his head with a look of almost relief.

The reaction was hardly the normal one in "Free Aleppo", where residents have been subjected to attacks from the air from the Syrian regime while at the same time facing regular salvoes of tank and artillery fire on the ground.

But Mr al-Jais, unlike his neighbours, was not looking forward to the triumph of the revolution; 20 hours earlier his brother, Ahmed, and cousin, Jassem, had been dragged away and executed by the revolutionaries.

The family are part of the Al-Barre tribe whose militia had entered the fray pledging their loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad. Their first act was an attack on opposition positions near the airport in which 15 revolutionaries were killed, some, it is claimed, shot with their hands tied behind their backs.

The reaction was an assault in the Sher Osman neighbourhood where part of the clan are based, with about a dozen killed and 20 arrested. These arrested men were accused of being members of the Shabiha, the loyalist militia accused of serial human rights abuse, and, according to video footage released, put against a wall and sprayed with Kalashnikov fire.

"They were screaming that Ahmed and Jassem were Shabiha, that is not true, not true", Mr al-Jais, a 47-year-old businessman, insisted, furiously shaking his head.

"They only started defending our area when it came under attack. We had nothing to do with what happened at the airport. This was in the war between the government – now they are blaming us all. I am sure they have killed Ahmed and Jassem. What will happen to their families? The children? What will happen to the rest of us? Some people were saying we are Alawites, we are not, we are Sunnis."

The Independent had been with the rebel fighters as they fought running battles with armed Al-Barre men late on Tuesday afternoon. The attack was halted due to lack of ammunition and missile strikes from a Mig-23. But later, replenished, the revolutionaries had apparently gone back and extracted their revenge.

Abu Suleiman was one of the rebel commanders in charge of the attack. "Some of the Shabiha were killed, some were arrested. We lost some martyrs as well. What happened to the arrested men I do not know. I think they are in prison and they will be tried. How do we know this video is real? No one has to fear just because they are Al-Barre. You have seen what the regime is doing, firing heavy weapons, killing civilians. The Shabiha kill children with the knife."

These attacks continued on Tuesday night and, sporadically, through yesterday. The most intense barrages were at Salaheddine, a south-eastern district which stands between regime forces and the 45 per cent of the city the revolutionaries claim to hold. Tanks which had been lined up shielding a regime-held district, Hamdaniyeh, came forward launching a number of rounds accompanied by artillery fire. "They are using a bigger type of artillery; look at the damage it is causing," said Abdul Razak Hadi, a music teacher who has taken up the gun, pointing at a metre-wide hole on the side of a building which was not there the previous day.

Three mortar rounds landed in quick succession to the east. "That was useless, they are wasting their ammunition," a fighter shouted. Mr Hadi told him to calm down: "They have ammunition to waste, we don't."

The advancing tanks stopped for the time being. The rebel fighters, who had fired back with rocket propelled grenades, waited in an alleyway shielded by curtains, as more grenade rounds and trays of Molotov cocktails were brought by a baker's van.

Had they heard that the opposition had supposedly received a consignment of heavy weapons and anti-aircraft guns through Turkey?

Sheikh Taufik Shiabuddin, the rebel commander in the area, shrugged. "No one has brought them to me. We don't need anti-aircraft guns here, but if we had some anti-tank weapons we can take out more of these tanks. We have taken care of three so far. We shall hold the regime here. There are other plans for the city."

Whether planned or not, the rebels have continued to make incremental gains, taking another police post yesterday towards the centre of the city to add to three captured the day before. As has been the pattern so far, the area was hit a little later with fire from a helicopter-gunship, but no attempt had been made by the evening at recapture.

Amid the violence, normality of sorts prevails in a number of districts, with shops open and men milling around.

"We want this to be finished one way or another as soon as possible, this city is dying around us," said Mohammed Qassem Ali, the owner of a stationery store. "We are struggling to get enough food for our families. We have to wait in the bread queue for two, three hours."

The United Nations was sending in relief. "That is good, but why don't they come in and stop the fighting? Isn't that what they are supposed to do?" Mr Qassem Ali asked.

Assad rallies armed forces with personal message

The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, urged his fighters yesterday to step up their "heroic" battle that he said will determine the destiny of the country.

In a message published on the 67th anniversary of the founding of the Syrian armed forces, President Assad described the military as "the backbone of the motherland".

Straying somewhat from the regime line that the uprising is the work of foreign terrorists, President Assad described the conflict as "multi-faceted", with foreign fighters supported by "internal agents".

"Today you are invited to increase your readiness and willingness for the armed forces to be the shield, wall and fortress of our nation," he said in the message published in the army magazine.

"Our battle is against a multi-faceted enemy with clear goals. This battle will determine the destiny of our people and the nation's past, present and future."

With the speech not televised, it was not clear if the President delivered it directly to his troops, who have suffered heavy losses during the conflict, particularly in recent weeks.

President Assad is yet to make a public address following the devastating opposition strike on his inner circle on 18 July, which killed four of his top security officials. Following the bombing, there were rumours he had fled to the Alawite stronghold of Latakia, though some Western diplomats say they believe he remains in Damascus.

loveday Morris