* As opposition argues in Doha, battle tests bid for unity
* Senior army defectors seek to forge disciplined force
* Siege of key town shows rebel fighters coordinating plans
* Indiscipline, killings still a feature of battle
* Assad forces deploy air power to keep rebels from citadel
By Erika Solomon
HAREM, Syria, Nov 8 Crouching in a tent among
the pine trees, two rain-soaked men trace a map in the dirt. A
cigarette stub, a rock and a tuna can mark targets amid a
scatter of X-marks and arrows.
They might almost be football coaches making a gameplan, but
in Syria these men are making war.
Fighters run in from the deluge, yelling for ammunition and
transport for the wounded. Thunder rumbles in the distance and
blends into bursts of mortar fire.
Shouting over the din, the two commanders debate tactics for
taking the town of Harem, which their rebel forces have under
siege. How they fare has big implications, not just because the
ancient strongpoint on the Turkish border dominates a strategic
route to Aleppo, but as a test of opposition efforts to better
marshal their untrained and fractious bands of volunteers.
"Basel, listen!" shouted Abu Osama, one of the two leaders
at the rain-sodden command post, to fellow rebel commander,
Basel Eissa, as they hammer out a coordinated plan for their
brigades. "This revolution has been disorganised and random for
over a year now. It's time to start focusing our strategies.
"All I hear from the fighters is 'Storm the city! Storm the
city!' - before we've secured any territory. I'm sick of this
slogan. Hold them back until our units have bombed the targets."
That was nearly two weeks ago, when a Reuters news team
began observing the siege of Harem, which began in mid-October.
This week, troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are holding
out in the mediaeval citadel after the rebels drove them from
the rest of the town, fighting house to house, street by street.
Sniper fire and air strikes continue to take a toll on the
500 or so besieging rebels who, in reply, offered little quarter
to some prisoners - one of whom Reuters saw them shoot dead.
As Assad's opponents and their Western, Arab and Turkish
backers meet in Qatar this week seeking elusive
unity, Harem shows rebel commanders struggling to forge a
single, disciplined force which might ease foreign powers' fear
that arms sent to shadowy groups may simply fuel carnage - or
even be turned against their donors.
Whether the opposition can succeed, remains unclear. Its
political leadership has appeared as divided as ever in Doha,
frustrating the hopes of allies like U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, who is pushing for a united approach that gives
a strong voice to those "in the front lines fighting and dying".
The fighting at Harem has shown rebels under the guidance of
defectors from Assad's army like Abu Osama out-manoeuvring
better armed troops. But it also demonstrates the firepower,
notably in the air, which Assad is deploying to defend his rule
as the 19-month-old conflict, now all-out civil war, grinds on.
Abu Osama, a muscular artillery major who stands tall above
his comrades in his tan army boots, joined the battle for Harem
as a representative of the Joint Leadership of the Military
Councils - a body whose own ultimate command structure is opaque
but which says it aims to use funding and weaponry apparently
mainly from Gulf states to take charge of the overall rebellion.
Imposing that leadership is not easy. The Councils have met
scepticism from some rebels and are flatly rejected by others.
The bands of fighters, recruited from villages or city
blocks, or by small political or religious groupings, have been
left to their own devices so far; many suspect senior army
defectors of corruption and trying to grab power for themselves.
But Harem, whose stone houses clustered under the fortress
and surrounded by pomegranate groves are home to about 20,000
people, has provided the Councils and men like Abu Osama with a
chance to show them what tactical leadership can provide.
In past months, attempts to rush the defences of a town once
garrisoned by Crusader knights did little but add dozens more
rebel lives to the tens of thousands lost in a conflict that
began in last year's Arab Spring street protests.
Now, with a new plan supervised by trained army officers
from the Joint Military Councils, a tightly organised siege is
in place. Rebels say new tactics have cut their casualty rate
even as Assad's men are fighting for their lives in the castle.
At the rebel command post on a muddy hillside, Abu Osama,
the 39-year-old officer from southern Syria, tried to reassure
Eissa, 43, an auto parts salesman from the nearby city of Idlib
now leading the local fighters of the Idlib Martyrs Brigade:
"You are right that we will not advance quickly, it will be
slower. But it will hold," Abu Osama told a frowning Eissa, a
father of four with no previous military experience. "We advance
by firepower, not manpower. Let's preserve our men's lives."
Below them, however, in the winding alleys of the town, for
the men trying to advance along the neat arrows of Abu Osama's
map in the dirt, frustration and death were a constant presence.
Pushing towards the citadel, the base for an isolated force
of some 400 loyalist soldiers and pro-Assad "shabbiha"
militiamen, rebel fighters in a motley collection of camouflage
fired their rifles - Kalashnikovs and M-16s - from the cover of
street corners; rocket-propelled grenades crashed nearby.
Pinned back by a lethal curtain of sniper fire, rebels used
sledgehammers to smash through internal walls between houses to
advance under cover from room to room.
Leading from the front, Eissa, a burly man in a floppy black
cowboy hat, was constantly wiping concrete dust from his curly
beard. His voice is hoarse from shouting orders: "What are you
doing?" he barked at two men idling at the back. "We're raiding
a new position - join your unit at the front now."
Back up the hill, watching the battle unfold, was Mohammed
al-Ali, previously a major in an army engineering unit. He said
taking Harem would almost complete the opposition hold on Idlib
province, creating a big, anti-Assad bridgehead between Aleppo,
Syria's largest city, and supplies coming in from Turkey.
But perhaps more importantly, success here could, he hoped,
demonstrate the kind of centralised command structure that would
win the confidence of Western and Arab leaders sceptical of the
rebels' cohesiveness and fearful they harbour in their ranks
Islamist militants inspired by al Qaeda and hostile to the West.
"The Joint Military Councils have begun trying to organise
forces under a shared plan, and Harem is the model," said Ali,
coordinator for a Council plan to have experienced officers like
himself move around the various fronts to improve cooperation,
training and specialisation: "We will have artillery units and
assault units, anti-aircraft units and raiding units," he said.
The Joint Councils have more than just expertise to rely on.
They say they have money, too - enough to offer a small monthly
stipend of $150 to fighters in units that accept their command.
Funding for the Councils comes from various states which
back the rebels, notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a
Syrian exile leader, Burhan Ghalioun, told Reuters in Doha.
In northern Syria, another officer working with the
Councils, Bashar Saadeddine, said: "The hope is that a salary
will offer an incentive to draw units under our oversight and
finally get some order in the ranks."
Among initiatives is an embryonic system of military courts
set up to counter the kind of war crimes which have risked
giving the opposition as bad a name internationally as Assad.
But like the commanders watching from their hilltop, the
reality in the streets of Harem is far removed from such ideals.
Last week, as rebel forces closed in on the citadel and the
defenders fought back with new-found ferocity, anger mounted in
the opposition ranks after one comrade was shot clean through
the head by a sniper and a grenade killed three others.
With many loyalists not in uniform, rebel fighters fire at
any man in civilian clothes whom they suspect of being shabbiha
- the irregular auxiliaries drawn mainly from Assad's minority
Alawite community who have been blamed for numerous massacres.
Surrender is no guarantee of survival. Outside one house,
lying in a flower bed, lay four bodies in Syrian army camouflage
- all had been shot in the head. Nearby, a man in plain clothes,
was bleeding heavily. "They've killed me," he howled.
Though Eissa ordered his men to treat his wounds, when the
commander returned some minutes later the man had bled to death.
From another house, rebel fighters hauled a bearded man in a
track suit top. Unarmed, he made to flee, but the men around him
fired, almost in slow motion, one shot, two, three. Silent, he
fell dead on the street. They later justified their action,
saying documents on the body showed he was a loyalist officer.
Rebel commanders, discomfited, said it was a rare incident:
"We've taken casualties all morning," said Mohaned Eissa, an
aide to his brother Basel. "This is war. Some mistakes will be
Other government soldiers captured in Harem seem to have
been treated in line with the international principles the
Military Councils have embraced. At Harem's town jail, where
rebels are holding 200 men, there was no obvious ill treatment.
Major al-Ali, the Military Councils' coordinator, said summary
executions were rare, though "a few mistakes are inevitable".
Some of the men under his notional command, expressed a more
cynical view, however, suggesting that the presence of Military
Councils officers simply meant rebel fighters now took care to
kill prisoners less publicly.
"The Joint Military Council is just a name. The fighters are
the same as they always were," said one bearded young fighter
named Majed, as he took a break from battle to rest on the stoop
of a farmhouse. "Not much has changed - except now we're
supposed to get rid of these criminals when no one is looking."
Accepting a pomegranate from the farmer whose house it was,
Majed flashed another man's identity card in his direction:
"This guy's a shabbiha, right?" he asked his host.
The farmer shook his head: "No, he hasn't done anything with
the regime. He's a farmer. Yesterday he helped me catch my stray
Eyes widening, Majed shouted into his walkie-talkie and ran
off: "Don't shoot the prisoners! Wait! You have an innocent!"
Earlier in the conflict, many Syrians tended to take pride
in declaring their allegiance to one side or the other. But in
Harem today, most locals can speak only of pain and a desire to
see the conflict ended.
"Do I even remember which side I'm on?" asked one man, Abu
Khaled, who sat on the floor of his living room with three
teenage nieces, silently watching the rebels from a window. "I
want Bashar to go so we can end this. This is a civil war; we
are watching our brothers kill each other in the streets."
The women complained of the mess left by rebels who had
camped in the room. But Abu Khaled silenced their criticism of
the young men: "These are small losses," he said. "Look out the
window. We are watching a whole generation disappear."
By the first days of November, most of Harem's streets were
under the control of rebels who announced the "liberation" of
the town and began distributing rice, oil, noodles and water to
families trapped in their homes during the battle.
With its forces ensconced in the citadel above, Assad's army
has turned in the past week or so to aerial bombing. While
Turkey and its Arab and Western allies debate whether to
intervene - a move strongly opposed by Russia, China and Assad's
regional ally Iran - the Syrian air force has had a free hand.
During one raid last week, women cradled screaming babies
under the olive trees outside their homes, as one jet dropped a
bomb that seemed to shake the whole town. When a helicopter then
buzzed overhead, one mother shouted in panic: "Is it above us?"
"We could be next."
Instead, though, the helicopter dropped white bundles of
supplies, to Assad's men in the fort. She sobbed with relief.
Up the hill, rebel commanders ignored the crashing bombs and
had turned again to their maps in the dirt, making more plans.
But as they hammered the fortress walls with rocket after
rocket, sending smoke curling above the rooftops, Harem Castle
towered over its attackers, seeming, at least for now, as
durable as the Assad family's four decades in power.
On Monday, an air strike hit a rebel unit; among the dead
was the brigade commander, Basel Eissa.