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Rebels on the retreat

THEY fought fiercely for five long hours.

Foreign Editor David Pratt, centre, with Syrian rebels
Foreign Editor David Pratt, centre, with Syrian rebels

At the height of the battle 50 rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with less than 30 guns and a few remaining bullets between them, tried desperately to hold back hundreds of regime troops and tanks.

"Assad's soldiers fought like crazy men," pointed out one young rebel, his observation rather ironic given his own side's apparent willingness to confront such a superior force.

As he spoke, his agitated eyes peering out from holes in the black balaclava ski-mask he wore were tell-tale signs of the traumatic experience he and his comrades had undergone in the northern Syrian village of Ain al-Baida these last few days.

Hidden deep in the pine forests that cover the snowy windswept hillsides of the frontier between Turkey and Syria these lightly armed resistance fighters had made a hazardous retreat under fire to rest, regroup and have their wounded ferried to hospitals in the Turkish city of Antakya.

Guided by a grey-bearded but sprightly 61-year-old elder known as Abu Fahdi, himself a refugee from the Syrian town of Latakia, we made our way across muddy, forested hillsides trying to stay out of sight of both the Turkish and Syrian army watchtowers that run the length of this border region.

Sensing a certain hesitation as we neared the frontier marked by warning signs declaring entry prohibited into this Militarised Zone, Abu Fahdi reassured us that the rebel enclave was not far ahead.

Over the past few weeks troops loyal to Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, have stepped up their incursions into the country's northern territory, planting landmines and deploying snipers to try to shut down the clandestine smuggling corridors on which the Free Syrian Army rebels as well as fleeing refugees depend for their hazardous passage in and out of Turkey.

Already, more than 7500 Syrians have fled to Turkey since the outbreak of anti-regime unrest almost one year ago, on March 15. What started as a trickle now looks set to become a fast-flowing torrent of uprooted and traumatised people as reports of widespread atrocities are increasingly substantiated across much of the country.

It was along one of these frontier escape routes that Khalil Qadar, a former Syrian soldier who defected to become a rebel fighter made the journey out from the battlefield of Ain al-Baida on Friday.

"The tanks came first and started shelling, there were both FSA and some civilians still in the village when the bombardment started," he explained, standing in the bitter, bone-chilling winter wind that howled eerily across the hillsides around the village of Guvecci. Even now his boots and camouflage trousers that pass for a uniform here were still caked in the mud from the trek out from Ain al-Baida.

"We tried to hold them back but we have no real weapons, only some Kalashnikovs and pump action shot guns."

Thirty years old and a former customs officer who spent a year and nine months as a conscript soldier in Assad's army, I asked him why had he decided to defect to the rebel side?

"Syria needs freedom, but what made up my mind was being told as a soldier to kill our people," he says, echoing the reasons many rebel fighters here give for their defection from the regime's ranks.

Unlike many of his comrades, Khalil Qadar had chosen to openly use his own family name rather than a nom-de-guerre to hide his identity for fear of reprisals against loved ones in Syria. I asked him why?

"My family are all in Turkey, safe now, so I can say and do what I want without fear," he said before returning to the events of the day before in Ain al-Baida.

Almost all those who died, he said, were the village's last remaining civilians, either too old, infirm or unable to make their escape over the arduous mountain routes to escape the onslaught that left them blown up or burned alive in their homes which, according to rebels, were fully ablaze as they retreated across the frontier.

Some who took part in the fight told me Russian-made, Syrian helicopter gunships had been used in the region as part of the army's advance and how they saw villagers' cars and other belongings being taken as war booty.

According to some reports, as many as 2000 Syrian government soldiers and up to 15 tanks were deployed in the offensive to seize control of the village from perhaps 150 rebels. Those fighters I talked, too, however, insist that there were never more than 50 of them in the village at the height of the battle.

Poorly equipped as they are, the Free Syrian Army fighters remain defiant. "It's Bashar or me," insisted one. "I will keep fighting until we win or I am dead. If Assad steps down and offers free and fair elections, then I would happily put down my gun."

Other rebels in the group, including one man called Mazzan who before taking up a Kalashnikov had worked for a shipping line on the Black Sea, was less convinced that any negotiated peace with the regime was realistic in the foreseeable future.

"Assad does not understand peaceful protest," he said angrily.

"The only way now to defend the peace process is with this," Mazzan insisted, holding up the assault rifle in his hand.

Despite their hasty retreat from Ain al-Baida the rebels I met still seemed upbeat. Most were Sunni Muslims but when pushed on the subject of Syria's sectarian divisions were at pains to point out that all those who fought Assad were their "brothers".

THAT said, clearly the bulk of those who make up their ranks come from the country's Sunni majority and many with their beards and devout demeanour display a religious zeal occasionally reminiscent of holy warriors from other conflicts around the world, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those Syrian rebels I met bore little similarity to those encountered while covering the revolution in Libya. In the North African version, many were more secular in their outlook, owing more to Cuban socialist Che Guevara than the religious "brigades" that have been the hallmark of many jihadist-inspired groups across the Middle East.

Asked if they would accept foreign fighters from other Arab and Muslim countries into their ranks they by and large were against the idea, insisting that Syrians themselves must be responsible for bringing down the Assad dictatorship.

A few felt that the failure of the international community thus far in helping them militarily or logistically meant that aid from anywhere right now would be acceptable.

"I don't care who they are – Libyan, Iraqi, if they want to help us bring down Assad, then they there are welcome," insisted Mazzan still waving his Kalashnikov around.

While the world's attention these last few weeks has focused on the terrible plight of those Syrian civilians caught up in the horrors of Homs, Assad's crackdown now bludgeons the entire country.

In countless villages across the north of Syria especially Idlib Province, evidence of appalling human rights abuses is now surfacing. Only yesterday, it was reported that 47 Syrian soldiers who tried to defect in the city of Idlib were executed by pro-Assad security forces.

Talk to refugees, reporters and human rights workers coming out of Syria and each has a litany of documentary evidence, be it photographs, video or eyewitness accounts that reveal the true scale and brutality of the regime's atrocities.

In the Turkish town of Yayladagi near the Syrian border and home to one of the refugee camps that houses the rapidly escalating number of traumatised men, women and children who have come over the winter mountains, there are endless accounts of children targeted by snipers, hospitals used as torture chambers, funeral mourners and doctors shot.

Such things are not just recent traits of the Assad dictatorial dynasty. In the village of Guvecci yesterday as I spoke with rebel fighters, a middle-aged man, clearly deranged, passed by on the street.

"He was a prisoner in Assad's jails for 12 years and tortured, one of the rebels told me by way of explanation for the man's erratic behaviour. "They used electricity on him."

Determined as the regime is to stop the world from knowing what is happening inside Syria, the evidence of gross human rights abuses is mounting and it's not only Syrians who have been the eyewitnesses.

A few days ago a security officer who works for one of the world's largest and most reputable news agencies recounted how he had discovered the bodies of civilians summarily executed around villages and towns in the north of Syria. He told, too, of how men carrying the coffin of another man who the regime claimed had been an opposition activist were shot themselves for burying him.

He and his reporting team were also deliberately targeted by shell and machine-gun fire. After five years as a serving solder and covering conflicts around the world, what he saw inside Idlib Province over the last 10 days would "stay with him to the grave".

"In the years to come the world will look back and wonder why we let this happen," he said.

According to the United Nations, more than 7500 people have now died in Syria. To say that this is a conservative estimate would be an understatement. As the regime continues to finish "cleansing" Homs, it is now turning its attention to the north of the country and especially Idlib.

Speaking the other day, a Syrian government spokesman said their troops had "broken the back" of the uprising and that the rebel withdrawal from places like Homs and Idlib heralded impending victory over what he called a Western-backed insurgency.

If only the West were that involved, is the response of most Syrians, both rebel and civilian alike. In the hills along the Turkey-Syria border yesterday, the rebels I met had certainly been in retreat. The task they face in bringing down Assad with the meagre weapons and resources they have is daunting, if not impossible. For now, they are bloodied but not bowed and will fight on for the freedom so many in Syria hope for. As one rebel fighter told me yesterday: "For this cause we have no problem dying."

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