Battles continue in Homs countryside

In the village of Mishirfeh, residents take up arms to resist Syrian rebels.

al-monitor People inspect a site hit by what activists said were missiles fired by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the northwestern Homs district of al-Waer, Jan. 1, 2015. Photo by REUTERS.

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war, syrian army, syria, strategy, homs

Jan 4, 2015

Although the city of Homs has been experiencing calm, except for the nightly sounds of the battle in al-Waer neighborhood, Homs’ countryside has been witnessing daily battles — chosen by fate, dictated by geography — that have been turning residents' agricultural lands and modest homes into battlefields.

“The war in Homs has not yet ended. Despite the army’s control over the entire neighborhoods in the city (except al-Waer), the vast lands in the countryside are still out of its control,” said a military source, explaining Homs’ demarcation lines between Syrian forces and the armed factions. “Homs’ northern countryside and the northeastern countryside, up to Hama’s countryside, are more or less still out of the army’s control, except for a zone surrounding the city and other regions near Homs.”

The source told As-Safir that fighting in the countryside is extremely difficult due to “roads providing constant supplies to militants through Turkey."

“Before the army took control over Qusair and the Lebanese borders, the situation was a lot harder. However, today, it seems relatively calm. The scope of control is quite clear. We reinforced our position to prevent them from making a move as we wait for a large-scale military operation that would reach the borders with Turkey,” he added.

The militants control Dar al-Kabirah, the closest town to Homs, to which a number of rebels from Homs decided to head. They also control the towns of Teir Maala, al-Ghantu and Talbiseh in northern Homs. Their power also reaches Rastan and Hama’s countryside, where the fighting is the heaviest, as these regions are controlled by the Islamic State.

The source said, “The residents of the countryside are fighting the militants and defending their land.” He said that the militants forced many residents from several villages to migrate, notably from Kiseen, al-Amiriyah, the Christian-dominated al-Doueir, al-Husn, al-Zarah, al-Ghantu, Um Sharhouh and Um Jameh. This prompted the villagers there to form popular committees to defend their land. They then joined the National Defense Forces, which were officially formed in the beginning of 2013, as support forces for the Syrian army.

Residents are fighting in the villages of Kfarennan, Jboureen (northern Homs) and al-Mishirfeh (northeastern Homs), which is considered Homs’ first defensive front against the militants coming from Hama’s countryside.

The road to Mishirfeh, 18 kilometers [11 miles] from Homs, starts at al-Sitteen Street. The car passes by Ashireh neighborhood and a military escort explains that “dozens of kidnappings occurred there.” The driver has to slow down and make room for the artillery crossing al-Maabad road toward Homs. “It looks like it is coming from one of the fighting fronts,” says the driver, before speeding off again and reaching the well-known al-Jabiriyah checkpoint, located at a crossroad where several Red Cross cars were parked.

“These cars are getting ready to enter the regions controlled by the armed factions in the northern countryside,” says the military escort.

As soon as we reach the village of Mishirfeh, we see from afar a hill with ancient walls. “This is al-Mishirfeh castle. Here was the lair of the kingdom of the famous Katana, which dates back to the third millennium BC,” explains the escort.

The car stops at the gate of military headquarters, where an escort from the village joins us. We then walk around the village that is home to more than 40,000 people.

“You can find all sorts of religions and sects in this small Syrian village, where Muslims and Christians have been coexisting for a long time. It has two churches and a number of mosques,” says the new escort Hussein Kharab, known as Abu Hala.

He talks about his village as we pass by houses whose walls are covered with pictures of young men who had died during battle. “The residents of this village are defending it. We are all standing side by side to confront the takfiris,” says Abu Hala. We stop at a military checkpoint at a front line, where the village’s defenders are stationed in a two-story house, whose owner has passed by to say hello.

Abu Hala, an engineer who left his job to join the forces and defend his village, points to the roof of the house where an arc extends from northeast of the village to the southwest, saying, “All those areas are controlled by militants.” He says, “Different factions from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army are fighting on these open fronts. The village is also continuously exposed to bombardment by the militants. Most recently, a shell hit the village’s school, killing a student.”

From the northeast to the southwest of the area surrounding the village, more than 20 advanced defensive points are distributed, and some of the sites are kept empty during the day. “There is no need for our presence during the day, as we can easily monitor their movements from here. However, when it gets dark outside, it becomes difficult due to the fog and the trees, so we have to be present on site,” explains Abu Hala.

Before violence erupted four years ago, the village was subject to many attacks. There were two "massacres" during which two entire families were killed, which pushed the village’s residents to organize armed work in its defense. So far, they have been able to repel dozens of violent attacks and prevent several car bombs from detonating. They have also carried out operations in the surrounding area, most notably over the village’s water well, which was seized by gunmen, but the villagers later discovered that the water had been poisoned.

The villagers say that the war is a “battle of existence,” where all residents fight to defend their houses and land. “The land I own is located near that hill over there, but I cannot go there right now, and that one right there is my brother’s land. Even though I cannot reach it, I will not let them [the militants] take control over it, not even for a minute,” said one of the fighters.

Most of the villagers work in agriculture, and there are a number of apricot and olive fields, as well as vineyards. However, a large number of young men work in the city of Homs, as government officials or employees in the private sector, and they will end up like most of the poor rural population of Homs. The war has prevented many residents from working their land, but they did not abandon their village.

“Despite the fact that most of the neighboring villages [Ain Hussein, Deir Fool, Zafarana and as-Saan] are controlled by the militants, they were unable to get one step closer to our village,” says Abu Hala, proudly.

The reason for their success in blocking the attacks, a field commander said, “is simply because we are defending our land,” adding that “many of the residents of the neighboring areas controlled by the militants are helping us. We monitor all movements on a daily basis, and we are targeting and preventing any move toward the village.”

Although Mishirfeh is located directly on the front line, it has welcomed displaced people from neighboring villages, and even from some of Homs’ neighborhoods. “We have several families in the village from other provinces, such as Aleppo and Idlib,” says Abu Hala.

The residents are well aware of the strategic and geographical importance of the village, which is Homs’ northeastern gate. Control of the village means securing the entrance to Homs and the supply routes toward al-Silmiyyah in Hama’s countryside and Aleppo. The villagers know that the war may be long, but they are accustomed to living under such circumstances. “The village lost more than 250 young people as they were defending their village and their families,” says Abu Hala. “Yet we still believe that we are winning, inevitably. We are the right holders and the true owners of the land.”

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