I’m standing next to a ridge, looking at the Syrian town of Salaqin. Just up on the ridge you can see the silhouettes of a mosque and couple of water towers. It looks like a very small, inconsequential town, but because it’s on the Syrian-Turkish border it’s very important to the rebels.
What the Syrian rebels are trying to do right now is carve out a kind of safe zone, a buffer zone where they can gather, assemble and plan attacks against the Syrian regime’s army, and also a place where they can move weapons and money into Syria.
The government knows this a strategic and important town as well. Just a few days ago, it began moving its tanks into Salaqin to assert its control. The rebels heard about these tanks, and decided to fight back.
It was early in the morning when the battle started and rebel groups from around this region rushed to Salaqin. They planted homemade bombs along the main roads into town. They say they exploded them as the tanks rolled past, then fired rocket-propelled grenades at the tanks.
As the battle rages on into the afternoon, we wait in the next town over. It’s the home base for one of the rebel groups that was fighting in Salaqin.
The sun is about to go down and we’ve been hearing about the clashes going on, just over the hills, all day. We start to hear helicopters, explosions and some gunfire.
Behind me, the sounds of the mosque can be heard asking for God to help the rebels, as well as naming the names of some of those who were killed. At least two have been killed so far.
After sundown, we walk to the rebel base to see if we can hear any more news about the battle. Our host, Abu Omar, says a prayer for his rebel friends. He’s afraid they won’t make it back.
Hours later, we get word that the rebels have taken Salaqin and are heading back to base. People erupt in celebration.
Multiple vehicles full of rebels return to the town and receive a hero’s welcome. There’s a lot of firing; they’re celebrating and shooting in the air to celebrate what they call a victory just over the hill. Hundreds of people in the streets kiss the rebels and welcome them home.
In a place where every little victory means something, this is definitely one. We manage to grab rebel commander Anas az Zeer and sit him down in what used to be a government post office that the rebels have now claimed as a headquarters.
We ask him how this little victory will help bring down the Syrian regime. First, he says, it is important for the rebels to hold towns like Salaqin along the Turkish border, so injured fighters can reach Turkey. The injured used to die in makeshift field hospitals or along difficult border crossings. Now many of them make it to Turkish hospitals and survive.
Anas says the bigger goal is that all the rebel groups in northern Syria will gather here and push forward to Syria’s capital, Damascus, to storm the presidential palace. He admits that might be a long way off.
Even though the rebels have managed to penetrate the country’s main cities, the regime’s army still has the resources to fight in little towns; towns like Salaqin.
That night, the celebrations go on for hours outside the rebel headquarters. The next day, though, the regime’s army takes back Salaqin.