BAB AL-SALAM, Syria (Reuters) - It took more than three weeks to reach it and cost the lives of 12 of his men, but when Abu Omar Dadikhi and his rebels finally marched through the Syrian border post separating their town from Turkey, the “Gate of Peace” fell without a fight.
For 24 days Dadikhi and his Free Syrian Army brigade, The Storm of the North, pushed slowly forward from their town of Azaz only five km (three miles) away, choking the supply lines to government troops before seizing the gate at dawn on Sunday.
The capture of Bab al-Salam along with two other gates on the Turkish frontier in less than a week appeared to mark a new momentum from opposition fighters after a bomb attack on President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle in Damascus.
“Our front was strong and the whole city rose up against the regime. This area has become liberated, 100 percent, and it has become a buffer zone and an area we control,” said Dadikhi, hours after commandeering the crossing.
“We now run the police, the security and the judiciary, all the functions of government,” he said.
Around 120 of Assad’s soldiers were guarding the gate when the siege started, Dadikhi said, but by the time his men made their final push, few of those were left. Those that remained either fled in two armored vehicles or defected to the rebels.
Now around 20 of his men, some dressed in combat fatigues, others in jeans and sandals, and some no more than 18-years-old, stand guard at what was once a bustling commercial border post.
The old Syrian border flags have been lowered to the ground, one of them torn in two. The pictures of Assad inside the customs buildings have been removed from the walls.
Seizing the opportunity in front of some reporters, the fighters form a line, piling their weapons on the ground in front of them while one begins to pray out loud.
“Oh Allah, defeat every tyrant. Oh Allah, demolish Bashar’s throne and his kingdom and Oh Allah, bring a good man to lead us. Oh Allah, complete our victory against the tyrant,” he prayed, while the others chanted in affirmation.
If his brigade of defectors, rebel fighters and village volunteers, reflect the popular nature of the 17-month uprising against Assad’s government, then Dadikhi, a 42-year-old former businessman, epitomizes it.
“My profession is trading in foodstuffs,” Dadikhi said, giving a wide grin. “I am a civilian who formed the military brigade in Azaz, we are the rebels of Azaz.”
Dressed in a blue tracksuit, plastic slippers and a Free Syrian Army baseball cap, Dadikhi does not cut the image of a hardened fighter. But he has seen his share of battles.
Leaning on a wooden cane, he lifts both trouser legs to reveal three bullet wounds in his lower legs. A grenade attack by Assad’s shabiha militia has left a scar on his right ear.
Twelve of his men were killed in battles with government soldiers in the weeks before they seized the border gate, and about 40 were wounded.
The toll over the last five months was far greater as the Syrian army deployed tanks around Azaz and waged battle with the rebels.
“We had more than 40 martyrs and more than 30 wounded and 50 who have been handicapped, who have either lost a leg or an eye,” Dadikhi said. “The Syrian regime brought a lot of military reinforcements so it would not become a safe zone.”
Echoing many rebels in Syria and those sheltering across the border in Turkey, Dadikhi rejected suggestions they were receiving better weapons from outside the country.
“We did not get any weapons and the weapons we fought the Assad regime with are those we seized from them. The ammunition we found in tanks and armored vehicles. This is what we fought the Syrian regime with,” Dadikhi said.
“We fought the regime with this,” he said, pointing to one of his younger men brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle.
While the seizure of border posts may be a symbolic victory, rebel commanders have themselves acknowledged they are of little strategic importance and recent opposition gains may be due to the army redoubling its efforts on the cities in the wake of the Damascus bombing last week.
Rebels have already been driven out of two districts in the capital a week after they launched an assault there in the aftermath of the bombing that killed four of Assad’s closest aides.
But for Dadikhi, the resolve that brought him this far has only been strengthened by his men’s recent gains.
“After Aleppo province we want to continue our drive towards Damascus and once we have a civil state and new parliament my mission is over. Then we will end our march,” he said.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Angus MacSwan