April 4, 2013

The Free Syrian Army and its allies control almost all of A-Raqqa province with the exception of a few kilometers occupied by the Syrian army’s formidable Division 17. On Thursday, reports emerged in the Arabic media about members of the besieged division, surrounded by rebels, issuing SOS pleas as they lack food, water and medical supplies. Zaid al-Fourati, an alias used by the spokesman of the A-Raqqa Media Center, talked with Ahmed Kwider on Skype to give him a fuller picture of what is happening on the ground today in the northern province.

Q: What is happening in A-Raqqa now near Division 17?

A: The army has made several desperate attempts to invade the city but the FSA defended it. Division 17 is in a very bad shape. The regime’s soldiers’ morale has collapsed. Their food supplies are dropped in parachutes by choppers. Sometimes they can’t get it because the rebels target the choppers, so most of the food supplies go to the rebels. [The division] will be liberated soon.

Q: How did you know that soldiers’ morale has collapsed?

A: We heard their SOS pleas on radio transmissions. They also asked for a truce so that they can move their wounded soldiers. We provided aid for some of them in our field hospitals despite the fact that we lack supplies. We also know this information from defectors.

Q: How long have they been asking for help? Did they receive any response?

A: Since yesterday 10 pm. We made an agreement to move the injured at 11 pm. We estimated 150 injured have been moved. They tried to crush the revolution in A-Raqqa but we’re nice people and they are still Syrians.

Q: Tell me about the location of Division 17 in A-Raqqa.

A: Division 17 covers four square kilometers approximately two kilometers north of A-Raqqa. Its force is made of approximately 600 members of the Syrian army.

Q: What is the importance of Division 17 for both sides?

A: It’s the regime last stronghold in A-Raqqa and the largest force in the northeast. Capturing this location by the FSA means the regime will be completely ousted from the area.

Q: How long has the division been under siege? When do you expect it will be invaded and liberated?

A: It was surrounded two months ago but the siege tightened three weeks ago. According to Colonel Wasel al-Hussain, the head of the Revolutionary Military Council in A-Raqqa, we will hear good news within days and maybe hours.

Q: Who are participating in the siege on the division? Is it the FSA, Jabhat a-Nusra or other Islamist battalions?

A: Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar Asham movement and some FSA battalions are the ones participating in the siege.

Q: You said they asked you for help and you responded. Who are you negotiating with?

A: Some of the rebels were originally defectors. They negotiated with the officers of the division. These officers were stubborn though, and negotiations have broken down.

Q: Why haven’t they given up if their soldiers’ morale is low and they need help?

A: Their snipers do not target the FSA only, but they also shoot at the soldiers who try to defect. A defected soldier told me that he had to crawl for 2 kilometers to avoid their snipers.

The officers and the snipers in charge of heavy weapons and command are Alawites. They are generally loyal to the regime. Yet, some of them have defected and they were secured in safe locations.