ISTANBUL — Rebels in northern Syria initially planned to launch an offensive against Islamic extremists this spring, but they moved months earlier because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was on the verge of seizing a strategic town, according to a new television documentary.
Western-supported moderate forces elected Jamal Maarouf, a Syrian army defector, as their joint commander on Christmas Day, according to “Syria’s Second Front,” which “Frontline” will air on most PBS stations Tuesday. Nine days later, Maarouf’s Syrian Revolutionary Front began the offensive against ISIS at al Atarib, near the Turkish border.
Had they not taken the town from ISIS, rebel commanders feared that their forces would be trapped between ISIS, which was on the verge of controlling much of northern Syria, and Syrian government forces to the south.
The uprising against ISIS pushed the radical Islamist group from roughly half of the 60 or more bases a McClatchy survey determined it had held. The offensive against ISIS sputtered in part because the rebels ran short of ammunition.
The United States and European and Middle Eastern countries have expressed alarm at the spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But in the struggle for al Atarib, Maarouf said, he received no assistance from the West or from Persian Gulf countries, some of which have been accused of surreptitiously funding ISIS.
Instead, the fighters in their ragtag outfits relied on captured weapons and ammunition and had to push some of their vehicles to get them started.
“For more than a year, we haven’t got anything but a very minimal amount of supplies,” Maarouf told “Frontline” in an interview made available to McClatchy. “We used to meet mostly with our brothers in Saudi Arabia, and they offered us a bit of support, but … it wasn’t enough. What we used to get from other countries was only promises. Even now we don’t receive anything.”
Not even free advice. “Until now, we make our own plans, and execute them without guidance,” 1st Lt. Hazem al Murai, the commander who led the most crucial part of the operation, told “Frontline.”
This was a low-tech battle. Before the crucial assault on a former government military base in al Atarib on Jan. 17, Murai laid out his battle plan by lining up stones on the muddy earth.
No one wore protective vests, and, lacking communications gear, Murai had to shout to his men to watch for landmines.
The story of the offensive has been reported up to now only in brief snippets from outside Syria due to the high risk of arrest and detention for foreign reporters crossing into the country.
What the “Frontline” report suggests, however, is that the rebel offensive against ISIS, rather than an indication of disarray within rebel ranks, as many have written, may prove to be a unifying turning point for the remnants of the badly disorganized Free Syrian Army, which had always been more of a brand name than a military organization.
The reporter, Muhammad Ali, a Syrian journalist, revealed that the battle for al Atarib followed a meeting of rebel groups whose commanders had never met with one another before. There, they elected Maarouf to lead them and created a new organization, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, a potential turning point in the 3-year-old uprising. Creation of the front enabled Maarouf to rally Islamist militias behind the same cause.
ISIS “tried to use religion in order to terrorize people,” Murai told “Frontline.” “All, all groups were weary of the ISIS organization: the killing, bloodshed and the appropriation of property and everything. We discussed it with the others, who responded well.”
The reporter, Ali, who lives in London, said he had made 12 reporting trips to Syria since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government began in March 2011. Going in after ISIS had taken control of the border was, he said, “a kind of suicide” mission.
“On my last two trips, we had to cross 13 ISIS checkpoints,” he told McClatchy. The “Frontline” program notes that on one of the recent trips it took seven hours to reach a town just 20 miles inside Syria.
Ali’s rebel hosts drove him at night, used back roads — with no lights — to avert the major checkpoints and were well prepared as they approached smaller checkpoints. Ali said his escorts identified him at the checkpoints as a fighter with the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. He said the rebels gave him an identity card that identified him as a tank driver.
Near the town of Harem, close to the Turkish border, the checkpoint was manned by two young foreign volunteers, aged 15 to 17, whose accents suggested they were from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, Ali said.
“I was looking like an emir, with a gray scarf and a long jacket,” he said. “They called me ‘sheikh.’”
He told them he and the others were going to visit a cousin who had been injured by the “heathens,” a reference to the rebels. When they asked where he came from, he said Raqqa. They asked what his tribe was, and he made up his response. “You’re welcome,” they said, waving him through.
He had to send his equipment separately, via a rebel courier. “I was forced to leave many things important to me,” he said. “My laptop. Extra batteries. I only had three batteries.”
At the time, ISIS was gaining ground in the north, but Ali said that after visits in October and November he anticipated that the group would come to blows with more moderate rebels sooner or later, and al Atarib would be the place. He made a plan to return in late December.
At the Dec. 25 meeting, top Free Syrian Army officials said they were planning to launch the operation two or three months later, after training 2,000 to 3,000 men and making a major effort to convince Western countries to supply them with ammunition.
What triggered the Jan. 3 assault was that ISIS “crossed the red line” by moving in to control al Atarib. “We kept avoiding them until we couldn’t bear it,” Murai said. “At that point we started our defense and we stormed al Atarib center, praise be to Allah.”
Ali said the sides weren’t evenly matched: ISIS had perhaps 500 fighters defending the town and Murai’s attacking force, 300. But his troops had more experience fighting house to house, as well as the home advantage, with townspeople showing the fighters where ISIS forces were hiding. Rebels killed 20 ISIS fighters and arrested 50, but ISIS called in reinforcements and was able to capture a base known as Regiment 46 from the moderate rebels.
Learning of the fighting, Ali rushed back to Syria and arrived as Murai’s fighters were preparing to assault the base. They expected a bitter battle, thinking that 300 ISIS fighters occupied the base and only 200 rebels were storming it. It would be too dangerous for him to come, Murai told Ali, so a rebel took Ali’s camera into battle.
But when the rebels reached the base, they found it deserted: The ISIS defenders had escaped through a corridor the rebels had left open. No rebel forces were killed.
In the video, Maarouf underscored the determination to oust ISIS, though everyone agreed it might take months. “Today, ISIS; tomorrow, Assad,” one rebel said to the camera.
Said Maarouf, “Every person who has a foreign agenda or who is pushed or paid by outsiders, who came to fulfill some outside goals or to oppress the Syrian population or came to steal this revolution, then we will stand in their face, just as we stood in the face of the regime.”
This story is part of a collaboration between McClatchy and “Frontline,” whose documentary “Syria’s Second Front” will air on PBS Tuesday, Feb. 11.