Middle East

Rumors swirl over murky Swaida battle

Activists were quick to pounce on what they said was recycled footage of “dead rebels.”

BEIRUT: The southern province of Swaida, one of the quietest parts of the country during Syria’s uprising, has been the site of a rare rebel attack on government forces with both sides trading claims and counterclaims over the murky incident.

In mid-December, the latest rebel Revolutionary Military Council was formed in the Druze-majority province, promising to begin staging attacks against government forces.

State television Tuesday showed footage of corpses it alleged were rebel fighters from what it called the “Khaldoun Zeineddine group,” which seemingly signaled a failed attempt by the rebels to bring Swaida into the fighting.

Zeineddine is a first lieutenant who announced his defection from the Syrian Army in August 2011.

In December of that year, he formed the Swaida region’s first FSA battalion, named after Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the leader of the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 against the French. In the summer of last year, he was wounded in battle and treated by his comrades from rebel units in the neighboring province of Hawran.

Last month, Zeineddine appeared in a video posted on YouTube announcing that his battalion had joined the Revolutionary Military Council for Swaida.

Pro-uprising social media said Friday that the FSA fighters had launched an attack on government troops in the Dahr al-Jabal region of Swaida, east of the provincial capital.

The RMC announced via its Facebook page that the rebels, “led by the hero Khaldoun Zeineddine, defeated the forces of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and caused tremendous losses in lives and equipment ... the injured and killed are now at Swaida Hospital, in the most powerful attack against the regime in Swaida, to prove that that we are here, on the ground in Swaida.”

The statement online also claimed that the FSA fighters suffered no casualties or wounded.

However, in the wake of Friday’s fighting, some pro-regime Internet media claimed the opposite, namely that Zeineddine and other combatants had been killed in the fighting, with the remainder arrested. One report pledged that evidence would shortly emerge of the government’s victory.

Separately, a pro-opposition website based in Dubai gave its own version of the developments, saying that the FSA killed five army personnel while the fighting resulted in the wounding of 17 people on both sides, with Zeineddine among them.

A clarification of sorts appeared to emerge Tuesday, when state-run television trumpeted the killing of Zeineddine and his fighters and aired footage of captured weapons and a dozen or so corpses strewn across the ground, clutching communications equipment and weapons.

The state-run news agency SANA also acknowledged that an attack had taken place, stating that a group of young people visited wounded government soldiers at the National Hospital in Swaida, describing the visit as part of a campaign entitled “We are all Syrians.” The visitors expressed “appreciation for the sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army in confronting armed terrorist groups who are tampering with the security and stability of the homeland.”

But anti-regime activists countered later that day with their own YouTube post, exposing what they called the regime’s “fabrications.”

The post provides links to a video, posted earlier in the month, of the aftermath of fighting in the neighboring province of Hawran. It appears to show the same dead rebels who were supposedly Zeineddine and his men.

This was followed by three other short YouTube postings, claiming to show members of the Hawran-based Omari Brigade after they had helped rescue the fighters from Swaida and treated them for their wounds.

However, there was no evidence provided about whether Zeineddine had escaped unscathed, been wounded or killed.

In recent days, activists in Swaida have treated the newly established military push in Swaida with caution, pleading with social media to refrain from going into detail about what is taking place.

A group calling itself the Gathering of Free People from Swaida said Tuesday it had asked “all activists to not publish any news on the military activities and battles in the governorate of Swaida, as have appeared in recent days, even if they are estimates.

“Up to now we have not published any news without the approval of those in charge so that we don’t write anything that God forbid causes harm, or leads to the death of a member of the Free Syrian Army, as part of getting a ‘scoop.’”

The group, like some other gatherings of activists, has advised the public that the Swaida RMC’s Facebook page is the only authoritative source of information for the military developments in the province.

Three days after saying that no casualties had been suffered in the Dahr al-Jabal attack, a cryptic condolence message saluting “martyrs” from the Swaida and Hawran regions appeared on the page Monday without providing any other details, while the comments section contained conflicting, impassioned claims about whether Zeineddine had in fact survived another battle.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2013, on page 8.




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