Middle East
2:17 am
Fri July 12, 2013

In Southern Syria, Rebels Say U.S. Support Is Critical

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 7:38 pm

The battle for the city of Dera'a in southern Syria has become a test of an American pledge to give military support to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. After a string of defeats, the rebels have scored rare victories around Dera'a.

But in interviews,rebel commanders passing through neighboring Jordan say those gains could be lost without a dependable arms pipeline and promised U.S. support.

Yasser Aboud, a thin, intense former colonel in the Syrian army, commands the joint operations center for southern Syria.

"We have made excellent gains on the ground," he says, "liberating entire villages."

Aboud explains that the rebels now control a significant area just north of the Jordanian border all the way to Al-Balad, a neighborhood in the historic district of Dera'a.

But the Syrian army has mounted a counteroffensive, he says.

"In terms of shelling and bombing, it goes beyond daily, it's almost around the clock," he says.

Aboud says the Syrian military now has reinforcements around the city.

"We've seen Shiite fighters coming in from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran," he says, including the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah.

Recent Successes

This is a new phase of the war, says Aboud, who was one of the first army officers to organize a rebel unit in Dera'a in May 2011. He was ambushed and captured by regime forces in the city and says he somehow survived a point-blank attempt to execute him.

"They placed a rifle by my right eye," he says, "and then they fired."

The bullet went through his nose and right eye. He was left for dead on the street. He lost sight in the eye, yet he returned to Dera'a after 22 days in a Jordanian hospital. He is convinced that Dera'a has always been the most important battle front in Syria.

"Dera'a is the most strategic front," he says. "Essentially, it's the closest one to Damascus."

Rebel commander Mohammed al-Dehni agrees to meet at a rehab hospital in Jordan. The cost of the fight in southern Syria shows on the grim faces of rebels in wheelchairs and on crutches. Some will be bedridden for life.

A colonel who defected from the Syrian army, Dehni leads a company in a 2,000-man rebel battalion. He says the rebels in the south have now organized into military councils, which may explain the recent successes.

"It's an incremental liberation effort," Dehni says. "One checkpoint is liberated, then another and then another."

When rebels recaptured the 8th-century Omari mosque in the historic district, Dehni had his picture taken in front of what was left. In March 2011, it was the gathering point for the first political protests against the Assad regime. In April 2013, Dehni says, 18 tank shells destroyed it.

The Vetting Process

Now, Dehni is in Jordan. He wants heavy weapons to counter the regime's tanks. He says Saudi Arabia has been covertly arming rebels for months. But these days, he says, Americans have the final say on who gets the weapons, insisting they go only to moderate rebel groups — and not Islamist brigades.

"They simply don't trust us at the moment, and the problem is that we are now frustrated by the fact that we have no guaranteed source of ammunition," he says.

Many commanders say they are frustrated with the long vetting process by U.S. intelligence agents in Jordan, and a Saudi arms pipeline that is undependable. The military aid promised by President Obama in June has not arrived at all.

"We're very disappointed with what's happening," says Ahmad Ne'meh, a former air force officer who now heads the rebel military council in Dera'a.

Ne'meh and other commanders say the U.S. and its allies have been assisting with training and intelligence sharing. Some nonlethal aid arrived two months ago.

"We did receive logistical support in terms of bulletproof vests, night vision goggles and security communication devices," he says.

To get the nonlethal U.S. gear, rebel fighters have to prove they are not Islamists. Every battle must be documented for U.S. agents at an operations room in Jordan, Ne'meh says. Other commanders confirm the process.

"Yes, we have been having people state on video that they've been receiving this logistical support," Ne'meh says.

Frustrations Mounting

But it's not enough to challenge the dynamics against Syria's army, says Ne'meh, especially with reinforcements from Iran and Hezbollah. Rebels have pleaded with the U.S. and international backers to open up the arms pipeline through Jordan and send anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons soon.

"We have communications with the Americans. They are our friends and allies. We just hope to get something proper from them," Ne'meh says. "Why the delay?"

In June, rebels blew up two high-rise buildings that flanked a key army post in Dera'a and claimed the city was about to fall to the rebels.

But now, the gains are in doubt, says Dehni, the rebel commander, after his failed mission to get resupplied in Jordan.

"Liberate Dera'a? Look, we are not receiving the weapons we need or the ammunition that we need," he says.

With rebels losing ground across Syria, the outcome in Dera'a is crucial.

Syria's political opposition leaders have rejected negotiations sponsored by the U.S. and Russia until the rebels are stronger on the ground.

"It is also our bad luck that this has come after Afghanistan and after Iraq, and now American society is very careful, maybe too careful," Dehni says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn now Israel's neighbor, where civil war is raging. After a string of defeats, Syria's rebel fighters manage to claim a rare victory last month. They gained control of a large part of the southern city of Dera'a, where the revolt against the Assad regime began more than two years ago. Now that city is now a major battle front. Rebels say their gains are in jeopardy unless they get more weapons pledged by their U.S. and Arab backers.

NPR's Deborah Amos has the latest.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The rebel commander agrees to meet us at a rehab hospital in Jordan. The cost of the fight in southern Syria shows on the grim faces of rebels in wheel chairs and on crutches, some bedridden for life. The commander, defected Army Colonel Mohammed al-Dehni, says rebels now have an organized military council in Dera'a, which may explain the first rebel victory in months.

COLONEL MOHAMMED AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) It's an incremental liberation effort. One checkpoint is liberated, then another and then another.

AMOS: When rebels recaptured what's left of an 8th century mosque in Dera'a - he snapped a cell phone picture. In March, 2011, the mosque was the gathering point for the first political protests against the Assad regime.

That's the Omari Mosque? That's where the revolution began?

AL-DEHNI: Mm-hmm. (Through Translator) 18 tank shells destroyed it.

AMOS: Now in Jordan, he wants heavy weapons to counter the regime's tanks. He says Saudi Arabia has been covertly arming rebels for months. But, now, he says, Americans have the final say on who gets the weapons here, insisting the arms go only to moderate rebel groups, as opposed to Islamist brigades.

AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) They simply don't trust us at the moment, and the problem is that we are now frustrated by the fact that we have no guaranteed source of ammunition.

AMOS: Many commanders say they are frustrated too, with the heavy vetting by U.S. intelligence agents, and a Saudi arms pipeline that is undependable. The military aid promised by President Obama in June has not arrived at all, they say.

AHMED NE'MEH: (Through Translator) We're very disappointed in what's happening.

AMOS: That's Ahmed Ne'meh, a former air force officer, who now heads a rebel military council. He and other commanders say the U.S. and its allies have been assisting with training and intelligence sharing. Some non-lethal aid arrived two months ago.

NE'MEH: (Through Translator) Yes we did receive logistical support in terms of bullet proof vests, night vision goggles and security communication devices.

AMOS: But to even to get non-lethal gear, rebel fighters have to prove they are not Islamist - every battle must be documented for U.S. agents at an operations room in Jordan, says Ne'meh.

NE'MEH: (Through Translator) Yes, we have been having people state on video that they've been receiving this logistical support.

AMOS: But he says it's not enough to change the dynamics against Syria's national army in Dera'a, especially with the recent reinforcements from Iran and the Shiite Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. Rebels have pleaded with the U.S. and international backers to open up the arms pipeline thru Jordan, and send anti-tank - and anti-aircraft weapons soon.

NE'MEH: (Through Translator) We do have communications with the Americans. They are our friends and allies. We just hope to get something proper from them. Why the delay?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

AMOS: In June, rebels blew up two high rise buildings that flanked an army post in Dera'a, and claimed that the whole city was close to falling. Activists posted a video of the fight. But now the gains are in doubt, says Dehni, after his failed mission to get re-supplied in Jordan.

AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) Liberate Dera'a? Look, we are not receiving the weapons we need or the ammunition that we need.

AMOS: With the rebels losing ground across Syria, in Qusair, on the border with Lebanon, and in the central city of Homs, the outcome in southern Syria is crucial.

Syria's political opposition leader has rejected negotiations sponsored by the U.S. and Russia until the rebels are stronger on the ground. We are waiting to see if the American promise of arms is more than just words, says Dehni.

AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) It is also our bad luck that this has come after Afghanistan and after Iraq, and therefore, now American society is very careful, maybe too careful.

AMOS: Too careful for the rebels of Dera'a, he says, who fear that the Americans will let them down.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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