In Syria's Idlib, tired rebels try siege tactics to gain ground
AL-ALANEH, Syria (Reuters) - From a rooftop, Abdullah called out to the Syrian government soldiers hiding in a hilltop encampment that his rebel unit had surrounded: "Defect, defect, we promise your safety!"
The response came swiftly with a volley of gunfire, sending the young rebel in faded camouflage pants diving for cover.
The scene took place around the edges of Syria's Idlib Province just a stone's throw from the Turkish border.
In a switch of tactics, rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad are trying to seize towns and military positions in Idlib's impoverished frontier region by surrounding them and slowly starving the soldiers out.
After the blast of gunfire, the frustrated Abdullah tried again: "I swear, defect and we won't kill you!"
Then, a government MiG warplane streaked over a mountaintop to drop a bomb on the nearby town of Salqin, its deafening blast shaking the valley.
In the trash and bullet-littered alleys of the village of Al-Alaneh, Abdullah and his comrades winced over the disaster that had likely befallen Salqin, a few km (miles) away.
They had surrounded the government soldiers on the hilltop, a cluster of white tents just visible behind the trees, and were biding their time.
"There are 150 soldiers in there. We've cut off their food and weapons supply for four days now. When we feel they are weak enough, we can go in and storm it and take them prisoner," said Abdullah's commander, Anas al-Zeir, who heads the Youssef al-Azma Brigade.
The commander hobbled around on crutches as he gave orders, his leg bound up from wounds in a previous battle.
The cost of this strategy is far less than what his fighters faced before, he said.
"We only had eight martyrs (dead) in the last siege."
SAVE WEAPONS AND LIVES
The uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria in autocratic fashion for four decades, started out as peaceful street protests 19 months ago but has degenerated into a full-scale civil war with sectarian overtones.
The Damascus government has relied heavily on air strikes and artillery to push back the poorly-equipped insurgents, inflicting severe punishment on civilians too as it unleashes heavy weaponry on cities and towns caught in the conflict.
More than 32,000 Syrians have been killed.
Rebels in the Idlib sector previously focused on ambushing convoys and waging pitched battles. But their light weapons forced a tactical shift to indirect assaults, like encirclements, in poorer districts such as Idlib, they said.
The rebels' changed approach has brought some successes. Several towns and checkpoints have fallen into insurgent hands after being besieged for about a week.
It is an easier way to make advances while sparing lives and saving ammunition, said Lieutenant Ali al-Ali. An artillery officer who defected last year, he now leads Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wustany, a brigade from a nearby mountain town.
"First we survey the area and plot which places to take, then we cut off their supply routes and surround them. We hold it until they surrender or are so weak we can storm the place easily," Ali said.
Sitting on cushions in his bare, concrete living room, the commander spoke softly, still weak from a sniper bullet that pierced his chest in a siege 10 days earlier.
"With this strategy, we save our weapons and we save lives on both sides, because there is less confrontation. We can take soldiers prisoner if they haven't defected or been killed when we storm the area."
Small groups of fighters can move off quickly before most air attacks, he added.
It is not the same for civilians in nearby towns like Salqin, who become the victim of rebel gains. They have been pounded from the sky by government forces.
Ali's village, Baramea, has also suffered. The huts of rocks and concrete dotting the mountainside are charred and cratered from mortar bombs.
Still, Ali sent a few cartons of bullets down the mountain to the Youssef al-Azma Brigade surrounding the soldiers. The rebels there, short on bullets, have been using homemade bombs - water pipes stuffed with aluminum and chemicals boiled out of nail polish.
The goal, the rebels said, was not simply to win villages but to exert pressure on Assad's forces by contesting more areas all at once.
One reason for the recent successes is that government soldiers have been pulled out of many parts of northern Idlib.
Some forces were diverted to battles under way in Syria's largest cities - Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. Those that remained only covered checkpoints and small bases near larger towns in northern Idlib, making them easier targets.
The rebels brought in help too. Some units from other parts of Idlib or neighboring provinces have been called in and others have come farther - among the charred remains of an army checkpoint seized by rebels outside Salqin, at least one Chechen and several Arabs from abroad were among the fighters.
It is hard to know how long their gains can stand against Assad's overwhelming air power. The rebels have enough anti-aircraft guns to fire at helicopters and even low-flying trainer jets, but are no match for the Russian-built MiGs.
Down the road, in Al-Alaneh, where the siege was still under way, Abdullah darted down the street and caught his breath behind a wall guarded by a scrawny young man with a tangled mop of hair and scruffy beard.
"How bad is this one?" he asked his comrade, panting.
"This sniper is a good one. He's been shooting the arms. I don't think he's shooting to kill," the fighter said.
Abdullah nodded: "Maybe he is with us."
Many of the fighters said they are tired of the bloody attacks they used to make and they preferred the siege technique even if it took longer to secure the desired result.
"There is less direct confrontation. And who knows, many of them may be scared and unable to defect, so it's better for them too," Hassan said.
The fate of besieged soldiers was also not clear.
Up the road, at the seized checkpoint, fighters buried bloated bodies in the red dirt. They said the soldiers were killed by their own forces before they stormed the area but the claim was impossible to verify.
The soldiers hunkered down on the surrounded hilltop must also struggle to decipher mixed messages from the rebels.
Just after the rebels implored the soldiers to defect, one fighter on a truck fired round after round with an anti-aircraft rifle.
Later, the rebels played revolutionary songs on the loudspeaker from the mosque of the town below. "March on, Free Syrian Army, march on," the song said.
"It's just as much a means of wearing on their nerves," said commander al-Zeir, still hobbling around. One of his fighters, a sniper, also limping from a leg wound, came up smiling.
"I killed three of Assad's dogs this morning," he shouted, and his fellow fighters patted him on the back.
For some though, even winning is painful. With every scorched tank, bombed building, and fallen soldier, their country unravels a little more.
"We understand the destruction that is happening, that either way, it is Syrian blood that is running," one man in the group whispered. "We may have a smile on our face and cheers of joy on our lips. But inside, our hearts are breaking."
(Reporting by Erika Solomon, editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)