Syrian Rebels, Regime Forces In Cat-and-Mouse Fight

Much has been made about the rebel takeover of Syrian border towns in recent days. And while the rebels do control more territory than ever before, the fight for key points along the border is far from over. One town has changed hands multiple times — regime tanks move in and rebels respond with homemade bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. (This piece initially aired July 24, 2012, on Morning Edition.)

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We're hearing dispatches from Syria all week from NPR's Kelly McEvers, first on MORNING EDITION and then again each afternoon on this program. She recently returned from a trip to Syria. And she spent last week with anti-government rebels in rural territory they hold near the Turkish border. Today, Kelly McEvers takes us to a town where cat-and-mouse fighting demonstrates that while the rebels are gaining ground, the Syrian regime still has them outgunned.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: I'm standing next to a ridge looking at the Syrian town of Salaqin. Just up on the ridge, you can see the sort of silhouettes of the mosque, the water tower. It looks like a very small and sort of inconsequential town, but it's extremely important to the rebels because it's on the Syrian-Turkish border. And what the rebels are trying to do right now in Syria is carve out a kind of safe zone, a kind of buffer zone where they can gather, assemble, plan attacks against the Syrian regime's army and where they can move weapons and money into Syria.

The government knows this a strategic and important town as well. Just a few days ago, it began moving its tanks into Salaqin to assert its control. The rebels heard about these tanks and decided to fight back. It was early in the morning when the battle started. Rebel groups from around the region rushed to Salaqin. They planted homemade bombs along the main roads into town. They say they exploded them as the tanks rolled past, then fired rocket-propelled grenades at the tanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

MCEVERS: This video from the battle shows the rebels taking out one tank. Another video shows one of the rebels shot dead by what they say was a Syrian Army sniper. As the battle rages on into the afternoon, we wait in the next town over. It's the home base for one of the rebel groups that was fighting in Salaqin. The sun is about to go down. We've been hearing about clashes going on just over the hills all day. Now we're starting to hear it. We're starting to hear helicopters, a couple of explosions and some gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE PRAYING)

MCEVERS: That's, behind me, the sound of the mosque calling out, asking for God to help the rebels, also naming the names of a couple of those who were killed. At least two have been killed so far. After sundown, we walk to the rebel base to see if we can hear any more news about the battle.

ABU OMAR: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: Our host, Abu Omar, says a prayer for his rebel friends. He's afraid they won't make it back. But hours later, we get word that the rebels have taken Salaqin and are heading back to base. People erupt in celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

MCEVERS: One, two, three, four vehicles full of rebels just got back into town.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

MCEVERS: Obviously, receiving a hero's welcome. There's a lot of firing. They're celebrating. They're shooting their guns in the air to celebrate their return, what they call a victory, just over the hill. Now, the town is following them. Hundreds of people in the streets kissing them, welcoming them home.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

MCEVERS: In a place where every little victory means something, this is definitely one. We manage to grab rebel commander Anas az Zeer and sit him down in what used to be a government post office that the rebels have now claimed as a headquarters. We ask him how this little victory will help bring down the Syrian regime.

ANAS AZ ZEER: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: First, he says, it's important for the rebels to hold towns like Salaqin along the Turkish border, so injured fighters can reach Turkey. The injured used to die in makeshift field hospitals or along difficult border crossings. Now many of them make it to Turkish hospitals and survive.

ZEER: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: Anas says the bigger goal is that all the rebel groups in northern Syria will gather here and push forward to Syria's capital, Damascus, to storm the presidential palace. But he admits that might be a long way off. Even though the rebels have managed to penetrate the country's main cities, the regime's army still has the resources to fight in little towns, little towns like Salaqin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

MCEVERS: That night, the celebrations go on for hours outside the rebel headquarters. The next day, though, the regime's army takes back Salaqin.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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