FSA Forces Defy the Russians as Aircrafts Shell Civilians in Northern Syria

Aircrafts hover over the Syrian opposition-controlled territories in northern Syria, easily visible to the naked eye. Witnesses to the missile strikes shout “God is great,” expressing their feelings of shock, fear, and anxiety.

On October 7, the first day of the combined Russian-regime campaign against opposition forces in Hama, huge explosions shook the ground under the rebels’ feet as Russian aircrafts pounded the villages of Latamna, Mourek and Kafr Nbouda in northern Hama countryside, to pave the way for regime ground forces. But the regime troops were taken by surprise as they proceeded towards the three villages. Opposition forces quickly destroyed more than twenty tanks and BMP armored vehicles. This was the Free Syrian Army’s response to Vladimir Putin mocking them in a televised interview explaining the goal behind Russia’s intervention in Syria.

The following day, the Russian aircrafts intensified their strikes to destroy the opposition-controlled territories, ignoring any civilian presence. In its turn, the Assad regime increased the attempts to reach the nearby village of Maan in the north. However, the FSA forces stood firm. According to Major Jamil al-Saleh, commander of the FSA unit Tajammu al-Izzah, the FSA destroyed more than fifty tanks and armored vehicles in less than ten days and local news outlets have started referring to it as a “tank massacre.”

In an interview with al-Saleh he responded to questions about the recent fighting.

Q: Why are FSA-controlled territories in northern and central Syria in Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, and Hama’s rural areas, being targeted, where there is no ISIS presence?

Jamil al-Saleh: The Russian President taunted the FSA, yet the “tank massacre” was the largest defeat we inflicted upon the Assad army since the outbreak of the revolution. This massacre is a clear message to Putin that FSA is a conventional army and can replace the regime army in a post-Assad Syria. Therefore, we became primary targets for Putin’s aircrafts. Most of the Russian strikes targeted FSA-controlled and civilian-populated areas.

Q: How many tanks were destroyed? How was this done? How many regime forces were killed and how was the estimation made?

Jamil al-Saleh: More than 50 tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed. I believe Assad has learned a tough lesson. We used TOW missiles, killing all soldiers aboard the tanks. Each tank carries four soldiers, in addition to those killed in their armored vehicles and the infantry, killing more than 200 regime soldiers. We verified these numbers by intercepting communications of the regime forces in addition to the eye witness accounts from our anti-Assad fighters.

The regime has been shelling you for four years, how did you recognize these aircrafts as being Russian?

Jamil al-Saleh: Little kids in Syria can now differentiate between the types of ammunition due to the bloody war the Assad regime is waging against the people that demanded freedom four years ago. As for the Russian aircrafts, we monitor their movements from when they take-off from the Latakia countryside airport until they conduct their strikes. The aircraft crews also speak Russian. Additionally, they make new maneuvers and the quality of the explosions is unfamiliar. We track these aircrafts from take-off until they conduct their strikes and return to their air base. They also do not fly individually.

Do you have enough TOW missiles to push back against any possible incursions in the coming days?

Jamil al-Saleh: I cannot answer this question. However, I assure you that we currently possess missiles and will not enable the regime forces or Russia to make any gains.

Major Al-Saleh concluded, “We, as the FSA, achieved a great success by using TOW missiles. We managed to protect thousands of civilians over the last months, ensuring a relatively good amount of stability. We will make further success if we are equipped with anti-aircraft missiles, which is what we ask of the nations who care about the Syrian people. This will reduce the number of people fleeing and help achieve further stability and security for the Syrian people.”

Meanwhile, in the rural areas of Hama, Latakia and Idlib, civilians are moving towards the Syrian-Turkish borders. Over the last ten days, an estimated 2000 civilians per day have been attempting to cross into Turkey at Khirbet al-Joz. Turkey is struggling to cope with hosting an ever growing number of refugees. Many refugees cross into Turkey illegally, and fear that Turkish authorities will coordinate with the Syrian opposition forces who control the Khirbet al-Joz crossing to return them to Syria.

Civilian suffering does not end there. The Russian air strikes killed dozens of civilians, many of them women and children. The latest of these incidents were in the villages of al-Ghantou, Talbisa, al-Dar al-Kabeera, and al-Rastan in northern rural Homs, killing 21 civilians including at least three children and four women. Russian air strikes also targeted several civilian buildings, field hospitals, and camps.

Abdullah al-Darweesh, a surgeon from rural Hama confirmed that Russian aircrafts targeted a medical center hosting injured civilians in al-Atshana village. Al-Darweesh said, “Over the last few hours, I examined more than five women and children injured by shelling that fell within 100 meters of them. Many of the critical cases were transferred to Turkish hospitals since field hospitals cannot treat such severe cases. The al-Atshana city center was in rubbles due to the heavy strikes.” Al-Darweesh also stated he treated the wounded after the Syrian regime had used chlorine gas earlier this year.

In rural Latakia, Dr. Abdel Munim al-Faris confirmed that the field hospital in the border village of al-Bernas in Lattakia countryside was evacuated after Russian aircrafts hit it with cluster bombs. The loss of the hospital was a huge detriment to the local residents because it was the only obstetrician center in the area.

The Russian regime justifies its military campaign as supporting the Syrian regime fight the Islamic State (ISIS), but it is only worsening an already complicated situation. Several FSA commanders state that Russia is not focusing on fighting the terrorist group but instead focuses on opposition forces that are fighting the regime, and it even targets civilians to worsen the refugee crisis, which has become a burden on Europe. Russian air strikes continue and are expanding to areas bordering the Syrian capital, Damascus, reportedly launching missiles that level buildings. Russian aircrafts also violated Turkish airspace multiple times, creating tensions on the southern Turkish-Syrian borders, and terrorizing civilians who fled to the border area to escape the Russian bombers.

Saleem Al-Omar is a freelance Syrian journalist.  

Image: (Photo: Flickr/Freedom House. A Free Syrian Army fighter reacts by kissing his rifle. Image cropped to fit the web page)