Published on 19 Feb 2012 Sections ,

Inside ‘free’ Syria

Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Rugman travels to rural northern Syria where local villagers have joined the revolt against the Assad regime. His report contains eyewitness accounts of brutality.

This remote corner of the country is a no-go area for security forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad, but the men who have taken up arms in support of what they call the Free Syrian Army say they only want to defend themselves from a bloody crackdown on opponents of his rule.

One gunman said: “We are farmers really, but Bashar Assad’s regime has forced us to do this – to go out with Kalashnikovs. We don’t want to kill anyone. We just want to save ourselves.”

A man called Arif, who says he left the Syrian Army because he was appalled at the violence being meted out to civilians, showed Channel 4 News what he said were images of prisoners being tied and gagged in the southern city of Deraa.

He said: “When I was in the army, we saw a lot of killing of people.”

Another man showed cigarette burns he said had been inflicted by intelligence agents, and alleged he had been electrocuted and forced to live in a cramped cell.

Other residents in the village filmed a trail of blood that led to the bodies of nine local men, who were said to have been executed by soldiers and state intelligence operatives.

The army has been so thinly stretched by the nationwide uprising against Assad that whole areas are now outside the control of the regime.

I am worried that Syria is going to slide into a civil war. William Hague

Egypt recalled its ambassador to Damascus on Sunday, the latest move by an Arab state to isolate Assad and pressure him to halt the crackdown.

And China has said it supports the Arab League’s proposals for ending the violence, a striking show of support just two weeks after Beijing vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution backing the league’s plans.

Evidence of torture?

Military action

Foreign Secretary William Hague has ruled out military action against the Syrian government.

He said: “We cannot intervene in the way we did in Libya … we will do many other things.

“I am worried that Syria is going to slide into a civil war and that our powers to do something about it are very constrained because, as everyone has seen, we have not been able to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council because of Russian and Chinese opposition.”

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been shelling neighbourhoods controlled by dissidents continuously for more than two weeks, according to witnesses, but they have so far stopped short of a full-frontal assault with ground troops.

The Revolutionary Council of Homs, which controls the city, says it fears the regime is about to use chemicals, citing large-scale evacuations of parts of the city still controlled by Assad loyalists, and reports of masks being distributed to Syrian army troops.

The group said in a statement: “The Assad army has used all types of weapons, like rocket launchers, artillery, and tanks, in its violent attack.

“There are also reports of the possibility of using chemical weapons in this campaign, as it had done in its campaign in Rastan not too long ago, where Assad forces used planes to spray pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

“What makes this possibility more likely is the migration of families from loyalist neighborhoods that are close to targeted neighborhoods like Karm al-Zeitoun and Waar, for example.

“Similar activity was noticed when the town of Talkalakh was attacked a while back, where all loyalist families migrated out of town two days before the attack took place.”


Defector’s claims

Earlier this month a defecting Syrian officer, Captain Abd al-Salam Ahmed Abdul Razek, claimed that Assad’s forces have been supplied with nerve toxins and have been trained in their use by Russian and Iranian experts.

The statement went on: “In order to preserve those who are loyal to it, the regime had possibly leaked information about using chemical weapons, as a warning and to give them time to leave areas that can be affected.

“We have seen that migration indeed took place when families from loyalist neighborhoods were seen leaving and abandoning their homes and going back to their home villages.

“This happened during last week, during a curfew, when no one else could move around, let alone leave the city, except for the loyalist families. Additionally, it was reported that Assad forces and troops received masks that protect against chemical weapons.”