Under Assad’s grip, uneasy co-existence with former rebels
TALBISEH, Syria — Former rebel commander Omar Melhem has nearly come full circle.
He was a colonel in the Syrian army when the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in 2011. He defected a year later and joined the armed revolt against the Syrian leader.
Then, when Assad’s forces marched into Talbiseh, he was among the rebels who handed over their weapons and agreed to a surrender deal that would allow them to stay in their hometown instead of a life of exile in the country’s north.
As the Syrian government reasserts control over opposition strongholds, such co-existence between the military and former rebel fighters like Melhem is now the new reality.
The 51-year-old former rebel commander now serves as a liaison between residents and other ex-rebels with the Syrian government, helping some rejoin the military and negotiating with top security officials about services in the town.
He says war brought only death and destruction to his town, and the deal he and other rebels reached with the government aimed to end the years-long misery of its residents.
“People got tired of war, got tired of the fighting, got tired of the destruction. … They’ve reached the conclusion that they were used by other countries, that we were a game to them,” Melhem said, referring to the U.S. and other Western nations, Turkey and the Gulf states that backed the rebels, and Russia and Iran, which backed the Syrian government.
Among the first Syrian towns to take up arms against the government, Talbiseh and nearby Rastan are now part of what some call a “reconciliation” process but others consider a humiliating surrender following years of indiscriminate bombardment and siege.
Melhem is among thousands of rebels who were forced to surrender in exchange for being allowed to stay. Hundreds of other fighters refused and left with their families for rebel-held parts of northern Syria, joining tens of thousands of government opponents forced into exile.
He now carries a list of names of rebels in the town and another of all the weapons that were handed back to the government as he lobbies for better services.
At one point, Melhem complained to an army colonel about the lack of round-the-clock water and electricity supplies. The officer’s response: Be patient. It’s been less than two months since the town was retaken.
When Melhem said that the town’s residents cooperate with those who treat them well but won’t tolerate any mistreatment, the officer responded, “Are you coming here to flex your muscles?” Then they both laughed.
Both towns are mostly deserted. Talbiseh, which once had a population of 70,000, now is home to just a few thousand.
During a tour by an Associated Press team, the first by a foreign media outlet, former insurgents wandered the streets, many without jobs. They said they were banned from leaving the region and complained the Syrian government was going after them for back taxes dating to 2011.
Most shops were closed and homes, riddled with bullet holes and shell damage, were empty. A giant poster of Assad stood at the town’s entrance.
Syria’s conflict, which has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half the country’s population, broke out in March 2011, with Arab Spring-inspired protests in the southern city of Daraa calling for reforms and more freedoms.
Within days, the protests spread around the country and after two months of government crackdowns, gunmen in Talbiseh and Rastan began fighting back using automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The two towns sank into cycles of bloodletting and endured a years-long government siege that left residents to survive on small amounts of food. Relief came only last year after they were included in one of four de-escalation zones agreed upon by Russia, Iran and Turkey, which back rival groups in Syria’s conflict.
“Life was very harsh, products were not available. It was even hard to find a loaf of bread,” said 61-year-old farmer Abdul-Latif al-Khatib.
“My daughters used to scream in fear and we would run around not knowing where to hide,” said 42-year-old Hayat al-Ghard, who remained in Talbiseh with her husband and seven young daughters. She said her daughters are illiterate as schools were mostly closed after the fighting began.
Melhem was the military commander of Jaysh al-Tawheed, the largest rebel faction in the region, with some 3,000 fighters. He boasts now, not of fighting government forces, but of ridding the region from the Islamic State group in 2015 and al-Qaida-linked fighters a year earlier.
“Jaysh al-Tawheed was created with the goal of fighting Daesh and we kicked them out of our area,” Melhem said, using an Arabic term for IS.
He said that since the rise of IS, his group started having contacts with Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate and this continued until last year, when the de-escalation deal was reached.
In February, government forces backed by Russian airstrikes launched a campaign to retake rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus. The area, known as eastern Ghouta, was one of the four de-escalation regions.
After troops captured eastern Ghouta in April, the government turned its attention to the northern countryside of Homs, including a string of towns and villages that included Talbiseh and Rastan.
Then, along with the government offensive, the Russians and Syrian authorities started brokering the so-called “reconciliation” deals. On May 18, government forces marched into Talbiseh and rebels handed over their weapons.
According to one government military commander in the area, reconciliation was just a euphemism for surrender.
“We can’t say that we’ve really reached a reconciliation, in the true meaning of the word,” Col. Youssef Sibahi said.
He said that when the Syrian army took control of the area, the rebels realized they would be targeted. “They were forced to surrender under the banner of reconciliation. That’s it,” he said.
Sibahi is on speaking terms with Melhem and said the former rebel commander helped coordinate the deal to stop the fighting.
His warning to rebels in remaining parts of Syria: If they reject a deal, “the area will be taken with destruction and death. … There is no other choice.”
As for Melhem, he has no regrets, he said, either about taking up arms to defend his town or eventually accepting the surrender deal.
“This was imposed on us and we had to do what we did. I am happy with what I reached,” he said of the deal. “Syria is one country.”
Associated Press writer Maggie Hyde in Talbiseh, Syria, contributed to this report.