BEIRUT: As the Syrian war grinds bloodily along in its fourth year the armed opposition has been coming under fire – verbally – over its military tactics, as it struggles to find ways to confront regime forces without generating negative political repercussions.
Rebel attacks on the purely military positions of regime forces and their paramilitary allies have never been problematic for supporters of the rebellion, especially when these areas are located outside of residential parts of towns and cities.
However, when it comes to targeting civilian areas controlled by the regime, political calculations come into play.
The “loyalist” areas often contain large numbers of people who are not hard-core regime supporters, but instead might be equally opposed to both the regime and the rebels. In some cases they are non-Sunni majority areas, which adds a sectarian element to the equation.
Anti-regime activists and supporters of the armed opposition are divided over whether targeting these areas is the right thing to do, or whether it is militarily useful.
And while the questions have been around since the outset of the fighting, the issue has become steadily more important against the backdrop of the regime’s “barrel bomb” offensive against the city and province of Aleppo, where residents, and regime opponents throughout the country, are desperate to see a halt to the monotonous, horrific destruction.
Since December, lives, homes and businesses have been obliterated by helicopters dropping the crude devices, with airstrikes artillery and mortar fire contributing to the death toll and physical devastation.
Activists film the grisly aftermath of the attacks, and periodically air the grievances of locals.
In one piece of footage, circulated last week by the opposition Sham News Network, an Aleppo resident issues an angry challenge to President Bashar Assad after stating that the bombed-out, chalk-colored area behind him was a civilian area, with no rebel presence.
“If you’re a man, then meet us out there on the front,” the man says, pointing off into the distance.
As a response to the barrel bomb campaign, leading Islamist militias in Aleppo decided cut off electricity supplies to loyalist-areas of the city last week, in a bid to pressure the regime to stop the attacks.
The rebel coalition, which includes the Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, Monday began to allow a resumption of electricity and water supplies as part of a reported multi-part deal with the regime: government forces halt barrel bomb attacks, both sides halt attacks on civilian areas, and both sides allow repair works on electricity lines, in a bid to improve public services in general.
It remains to be seen whether the agreement will be respected although some activists maintained that for most of Monday, the attacks had stopped.
The statement, circulated by a civil group that mediated the agreement, said the rebels restored electricity and water supplies to “end the suffering of our people” in regime-controlled areas.
“We hope that our people in regime areas understand why we needed to do this, in order to protect their brethren in liberated areas,” the rebels said, promising an even “harsher” response if the regime fails to live up to the pact.
While few would protest the decision to cut off electricity supplies in a bid to halt the barrel bomb campaign, another weapon wielded by the armed opposition – mortar fire directed at regime-held neighborhoods – produces a sharp division.
Abbas Qabbani, an independent media activist from Aleppo, told The Daily Star that “many people like me, who are supporters of the revolution, are against these violations against civilians.”
“Of course, there are people who live in regime-controlled areas and who support the opposition – no one denies this,” he added.
But many people agree mortar bombs are a poor choice, due to the lack of accuracy, and of a centralized military force deciding on the targets.
Joud al-Khateib, a local journalist from the northern city, said “things have become more difficult for the opposition in terms of military operations – the regime can use civilians as human shields in many cases.”
“As for shelling, the opposition isn’t very unified, so there are some [armed] groups that make mistakes, which leads to civilian casualties.”
The same question of the usefulness of targeting civilian neighborhoods applies to the city of Homs and to Greater Damascus, each divided between regime- and rebel-held areas.
A constellation of regime-held areas in the capital have become subjected recently to a stepped-up campaign of mortar fire, usually undertaken by various militias.
There are targets that are sensitive for sectarian reasons, such as the Christian-populated neighborhoods of east Damascus and a few nearby suburbs, as well as the suburb of Jaramana, with its Christian and Druze majority.
There are also targets, such as downtown Damascus, that raise questions about the effectiveness of such attacks.
Tareq al-Dimashqi is an anti-regime media activist in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, which has been long subjected to airstrikes, artillery fire and mortar bombs by regime forces and paramilitary allies.
He argued that the majority of opposition supporters favored the targeting of regime-held areas with mortar fire and other types of strikes, under the principle of “treatment in kind.”
But, he added quickly, using regime-like tactics meant that the “revolution has failed in its goal” of offering an alternative to the actions of the regime.
The entire debate over using indiscriminate mortar strikes against regime-held areas could be avoided, Dimashqi said, if rebels instead focused on decapitating the regime by seizing inner Damascus, the nerve center.
“The regime is like a snake. It will only be killed if you cut off its head, and its head is here, in Damascus. If the rebels control everywhere else in the country, it won’t bring down the regime,” he added.
Until the mortar bomb attacks in the capital and elsewhere stop, social media and activist groups remain busy documenting the aftermath of the destruction, urging that the war be conducted outside civilian areas, and arguing over who is actually responsible for certain incidents of shelling.
In the southern, Druze-majority province of Swaida, a group of residents who classify themselves as neither pro-regime or pro-rebel recently demanded a halt to both barrel bomb attacks and the shelling of civilian areas.
Pro-opposition media Monday also highlighted recent Druze anger at Hussam Dib, a Druze unit commander with the Free Syria Army. Dib was active in the Ghouta region of Damascus before declaring last month that his unit had disbanded, due to a lack of material support from backers of the uprising.
Opposition media said Dib was also subjected to a ferocious campaign of violent threats by Druze loyalists – they were angered by his recent accusation that the regime, and not the rebels, was responsible for incidents in which Jaramana has been shelled.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page dedicated to tracking the daily mortar bomb attacks on Damascus, has gained more than 100,000 likes, but reflects the difficulty in even discussing the issue. Followers are routinely advised to avoid giving details about where the attacks take place, so the other side – whoever that may be – is unable to refine its coordinates and its ability to sow destruction.