In rebel-held 'Free Syria,' regime planes still terrorize

President Assad's ground troops are nowhere to be seen in the rebel-held territory they call "Free Syria." But without a no-fly zone, civilians, like those today in Al-Bab, find themselves constantly vulnerable to aerial assaults. 

Javier Manzano
Peaceful anti-Assad protesters from the northern Syrian town of Al Bab flee as a fighter jet strafes the neighborhood with a 50-caliber machine gun.

The mood was triumphant today as Al-Bab residents emptied from mosques and marched to the city's Freedom Square to call for the end of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Children waved an oversized Syrian flag, an activist rallied the crowd with a microphone, and several protesters broke into small dance circles.

For a brief time, an end to the war felt almost imminent in this city residents now describe as part of “Free Syria."

Since late July, Al-Bab has been part of a small region of Syria that’s managed to break free from the control of Mr. Assad and his Army. Situated about 25 miles northeast of Aleppo and the frontlines of the civil war, the city is deep inside opposition-controlled territory where there are no traces of the regime or the Army.

The crowd's moment of triumph, however, was short-lived.

Over the shouts and songs, demonstrators heard the sound of a Syrian jet approaching. As the crowd scattered, the jet circled, went into a dive, and released a bomb where the demonstration had been just moments ago. In the hour that followed, it strafed the city as members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fired back with heavy machines unlikely to down the plane.

When the jet finally disappeared into the cloud cover, it left behind seven people dead and dozens injured, according to FSA officials. Shopkeepers returned to the few stores that had yet to indefinitely close for business and the city reluctantly returned to what’s left of normal life.

Bombings and jet attacks have become a regular occurrence in towns like Al-Bab that are well inside FSA-controlled parts of Syria. Even if opposition forces say they feel strong enough to hold the cities in the face of Assad’s ground forces, they say it’s impossible to create any safe or truly independent areas as long as the Syrian government has jets and artillery. Incidents like today's illustrate why they are demanding a no-fly zone in Syria.

“When the jets come we don't know what to do,” says an FSA fighter who, like most opposition supporters in Al-Bab, asked for security reasons to be referred to only by his nickname, Abu Abdu.

Few residents fear the return of the Assad Army, but the persistent bombing has forced many into exile. Others have shuttered their business or lost their jobs because of the constant threat of the Assad regime’s Air Force.

Among the international community, France has aggressively called for a no-fly zone over Syria, and the US and Turkey have also discussed the possibility, but no action has been taken. Russia and China are expected to veto any such measures if brought before the United Nations Security Council.

Turkey has led the lobbying for the creation of a safe zone along the border where refugees could be protected without fleeing to neighboring countries. A no-fly zone would likely be required to create such an area.

The FSA lacks anti-air weapons and has little recourse against the Syrian regime planes and helicopters, aside from heavy machine guns, which are largely inadequate as anti-air weapons. 

“The FSA cannot protect us against the airplanes because they have only small weapons,” says Abu Mohammad, a resident of Al-Bab, who owns a mobile phone shop that he shuttered due to ongoing insecurity. “We are very scared when the planes come but after they leave we try to go back to our normal life, but there are no jobs because many of the shops and businesses have closed.”

About two months ago, the chicken farm where Abdul Karis worked went out of business after food shortages forced them to eat all the chickens.

“Now we are just sitting in the streets, there is no work, and the jets come here to attack us,” he says.

Amid the uncertainty, opposition groups have worked to establish a temporary government to bring some modicum of order to the city. Volunteers run everything from the local courthouse to the local hospital, but living under the constant threat of bombardment, they often struggle to provide services for the population, especially the hospital, which doctors say has been targeted by aerial attacks.

“They bombed our hospital so many times we had to move it to a secret location in a new building,” says Abu Adeb, a doctor in Al-Bab. He adds that the hospital also faces a shortage of critical medicines like antibiotics.

Still, many residents say that while the bombings remain a regular source of terror, the attacks have only strengthened their resolve to continue resisting the Assad government. Shortly after jets bombed today's demonstration, a small group of activists gathered on a hill overlooking the city, chanting antiregime slogans.

“Every time we are bombed, it increases our confidence," says Mahmoud Akel, a volunteer judge in the opposition’s transitional government. "It makes us want to work harder to destroy this regime.”

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