June 13, 2013
By Ahmed Kwider and Nuha Shabaan
AMMAN: Syrian regime forces have increased the use of deadly barrel bombs on A-Raqqa city in recent weeks as the Free Syrian Army and its Islamist allies make incremental gains against the Division 17 base just outside the provincial capital.
Activists have documented at least one dozen barrel-bomb attacks on the city and other areas of the province over the past six weeks. A-Raqqa is the only one of Syria’s 14 provinces that is completely controlled by the rebels, while a remaining pocket of Division 17 and a besieged military base at A-Tabaqa 25km away remain on the ground.
Map by: Abdulrahman al-Masri
The rebels, led by Jabhat a-Nusra and other Islamist militias, have captured roughly 80 percent of Division 17, a base that covers more than one square kilometer and is located about the same distance outside the provincial capital city.
On Thursday, regime helicopters dropped ammunition and food into the remaining sections held by the army as rebels continued their months-long siege on the division, essentially waiting it out.
This week, rebels captured at least one battalion within the sprawling Division 17 base, the regime’s largest in the northeast.
The rebels “confiscated 50,000 Russian bullets,” said a journalist with the Raqqa Media Center, who asked not to be named because of security concerns. Regime forces fired upon their own weapons depots in the captured area to prevent the rebels from obtaining any additional ammunition, the opposition press reported.
“The rebels’ pressure on Division 17 has increased, so the regime takes its revenge on civilians to say ‘if they hit us, we will hit you,’” said Khaled al-Naimy, an independent activist who formerly worked as the chief file clerk at the provincial capital building in A-Raqqa City.
“The regime uses explosive barrels because they result in savage and random destruction once they hit the ground,” says al-Naimy, 29, who spent three months in prison for releasing a confidential military memo to the opposition press.
Barrel bombs are stuffed with explosive powder, pieces of iron and steel and sealed in an oil drum to weigh an estimated 130kg. The force of the shrapnel upon impact can kill civilians within a one-block radius. A regime chopper can hold up to six barrels.
It is not clear whether the assaults on civilian areas across the province, with one example from last week here, have impacted the rebels’ popularity on the ground. Residents, citizen journalists and other opponents of the regime have told Syria Direct that Raqqans are experiencing freedom of movement and thought for the first time in the absence of the regime, despite ongoing attacks from the air.
The shabiha and Popular Committees (armed pro-regime militants) are no longer operational in the province. One reason is the spate of public executions, such as this one that took place in A-Raqqa City’s main square. Three Syrian army soldiers, including one officer, were shot dead by Jabhat a-Nusra fighters “to avenge our brothers and sisters in Banias” following a regime massacre there in May resulting in the deaths of at least 15o people.
With additional reporting by Abdulrahman al-Masri.