REYHANLI, Turkey — Buoyed by the ouster from northern Syria of Islamist extremists and the arrival of new weapons, including U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles, Western-backed rebels have gone on the offensive in two battle zones and say they’ve gained ground against forces loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad.
The Assad government has responded by stepping up an aerial bombing campaign that has driven tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
In Aleppo, where government forces seemed on the verge of capturing the city a month ago, a rebel offensive that began in mid-April is moving ahead slowly on all fronts, activists claim. Western-backed and Islamist fighters now are besieging the city’s most important security facility, the headquarters of air force intelligence, after capturing three buildings near the compound.
To avoid the regime’s barrel bombs — homemade weapons that can’t be aimed accurately — rebels are concentrating forces at the front lines, where Assad’s forces rarely drop the devices, apparently for fear of hitting their own troops.
About 60 miles to the south, rebels are using the same tactic to keep the main north-south highway closed at a small town called Murak, where they claim to have destroyed a large number of tanks, many with the help of newly arrived anti-tank weapons.
The rebels first seized control of the road in early February, cutting the main supply route from the government’s weapons depots in Hama to cities in the north, including Aleppo. The action also forced the government to abandon 18 checkpoints in Khan Sheikhoun, a town just to the north of Murak.
That ended a yearlong government siege of Khan Sheikhoun, whose usual 80,000 population had doubled to 160,000 with people who had fled combat elsewhere. It also allowed the rebels to turn the tables and besiege three bases that government forces had used to shell nearby villages, commanders and activists said. Now the government is having to resupply the bases by parachute. The supplies often land in rebel-held areas.
“The fighters are from the area, and they know how to move around. They can advance to a few hundred meters of tanks and destroy them,” said Capt. Amin Danawar, a defected Syrian army officer who was a front-line commander during part of the offensive.
The government responded by opening a bombing campaign against Khan Sheikhoun that drove most of the civilians from the town. Khalid el Yousef, 42, a farmer and a brigade commander in the Western-back Free Syrian Army, said only about 5,000 people remain in the town, and that most of them spend much of their time underground, cowering in primitive shelters from the daily bombing and artillery shelling.
Yousef arrived in Reyhanli on Friday with an extended family of 18. He said that most days Khan Sheikhoun was hit by one or two barrel bombs. On Saturday, a day after he left, he said friends told him there were four.
Rebel officials said a key to the launch of their offensives was the decision by moderate rebels to attack Islamist extremists throughout northeastern Syria in January. The extremists from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had blocked moderate rebel supply lines, seized local government headquarters, looted private property and had jailed hundreds of civilians without charges.
In leading the attack by the newly formed Syrian Revolutionary Front, Jamal Maarouf, a contractor turned militia commander, revived the fortunes of the Free Syrian Army, which seemed headed for oblivion at the time, and secured it a leadership role in the rebellion as Islamist fighting groups joined the battle against ISIS. Maarouf also came to the attention of United States and other powers concerned about the threat ISIS poses to regional stability.
ISIS still has a major stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, and controls as much as 20 percent of Syrian territory, observers say. But an aide to Maarouf said he is now in regular contact with U.S. officials, who have promised advanced weapons, though so far they have delivered only nonlethal supplies, including vehicles, uniforms, first aid kits, food and communications gear.
“They are speaking seriously,” the aide, who asked not to be identified so he could speak more candidly, told McClatchy. “They promised us vehicles. And they sent us 20. We feel they are honest.”
He said Maarouf is happy to deal with the Americans because they will “follow up and see our work, and test our credibility on the ground.”
The U.S. also has begun supplying TOW missiles to another moderate rebel group, Harakat Hazem, a unit that reports to Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, who was ousted as chief of staff in February but refused to hand over the post when the opposition’s Supreme Military Council named a Maarouf ally to replace him.
Three YouTube videos posted in the past month show Haraket Hazem fighters firing TOW missiles at targets that are unclear, but the numbers that have actually been delivered to rebels is though to be modest.
The offensives and other factors, including what rebels say is growing financial support, have bolstered rebel morale, which had been flagging in the wake of significant government gains over recent months. The government seized control of the city of Yabroud, which had been in rebel hands for two years, in March and is expected soon to take control of the rebel-held old city district of Homs, a rebel bastion for more than two years.
“Four months ago, the regime was winning,” said Basil Derwish, a spokesman for the anti-government media center in Hama who was interviewed in Antakya, Turkey, during a brief respite from the battlefield. “Now, the rebels are making big advances.”
The ouster of ISIS was a critical factor, he said. “When ISIS was present, the FSA always fought with caution,” he said. But citing the battle over Murak and Khan Sheikhoun, he said: “I’m optimistic, because in 100 days the regime has been unable to take back the road, and they’ve used every weapon in their arsenal.”
“At least now, (the rebels) have only one enemy, which is the regime,” said Kareem Ankeer, an activist from Idlib province who was visiting Reyhanli. “In the past, they had two. ISIS was trying to kill them — there were many operations to assassinate FSA and other rebel leaders.”
Youssef, the farmer from Khan Sheikhoun, and his fellow commander, Amin Danawar, both said the rebels had destroyed in excess of 40 tanks and armored vehicles in the 100 days of fighting. A civilian spokesman made the same claim, though a McClatchy search for videos of “dead” tanks in the Murak front turned up only eight. Asked about the discrepancy, Youssef invited McClatchy to visit the front. “If you come, you can take pictures of every one of them.”