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On the day that a cease-fire is supposed to take hold, GlobalPost deconstructs the government’s strategy for reclaiming the country by force.
But two tanks were positioned along the highway, guarding a footbridge into the city. Spotting the rebels, the tanks started shelling in their direction. Explosions landed in the field beyond.
Before long, another mass retreat had begun. The group fled back through the houses and into the fields. Cars sped over hills and flat beds packed with youth followed through the hamlets, passing the faces of other men who’d also lost their cities. The shelling continued in the distance.
It took less than two days for the Syrian regime to regain control of Saraqeb, just as it had the city of Idlib a few weeks before.
“What can we do? Do we need to have 100 or 200 die a day for the world to help?” asked one rebel, who had defected from the Syrian army.
While the Syrian regime now controlled Saraqeb by military force, the Syrian government appeared to turn its attention to the families who live here and who it suspects are quietly loyal to the opposition.
So as the final phase of its strategy, it sent the Shabiha.
The Shabiha, a devoutly pro-regime militia, has operated in the shadows for decades. They control smuggling routes, and have earned a reputation for being above the law. Their name comes from the Arabic word for “ghosts,” and is now associated with regime torture and murder. There is little average Syrians seem to fear more.
Two activists living outside the country said Shabiha agents go house-to-house searching for names on their well-kept — and extensive — wanted lists.
“If they can’t find the son, they’ll take the father and hold him until the son comes,” said Nouri, a Syrian activist based in Belgium. “The Shabiha want to take revenge. The army is not driven in this way. They’re just doing their job.”
Residents all over Idlib Province say they won’t leave their immediate surroundings for fear of crossing an army checkpoint and finding out that their names had landed on one of these lists.
Even inside rebel strongholds like Saraqeb, Syrian intelligence forces were able to get names of protesters, fighters and those who associate with them, Nouri said.
Sermin, the small town of 15,000, shows what happens after Syrian security forces conquer a rebel stronghold. Sermin was shelled several days before Saraqeb. Its mosque was nearly destroyed. Some houses burned. And some of its residents executed by the Shabiha, leaving a town seething with anger.
“I want to show the world how [Assad] is a strong criminal,” said one 60-year-old mother. She said the Shabiha killed three of her sons. “I want to take the Kalshnikov. Bring me a Kalashnikov and I will go fight them. I will kill Assad’s men.”
Idlib Province is predominantly Sunni, a branch of Islam to which most Syrians belong. Assad and most government officials are Allawite, a smaller Islamic sect that is the minority here.
Wherever one goes in Idlib Province, the Sunni villagers are anxious to talk about how Assad is killing his own people. And they remind the few foreign correspondents traveling through this area that the opposition needs weapons to defend themselves.
“We need weapons if from the sky,” said Malik, 42, an unemployed taxi driver from Bennish. “I have seven children. I’m willing to give my children to get weapons to kill Assad.”
“Bashar uses the same strategy as his father. He thinks if he uses power, all will fall. But if he destroys Homs, Hama is coming, if he destroys Hama, Idlib is coming.”
Idlib has fallen. And, now, so has Saraqeb. But the countryside is awash in revolutionaries who say they are planning more attacks as soon as they can collect enough ammunition — cease fire or not.