The soldiers fled like rats,” says a grinning rebel after he and his fellow fighters captured Anadan checkpoint from the Syrian army, giving them strategic access to Aleppo where they are battling a fierce loyalist offensive.
“Bashar don’t go, we will catch you,” jokes another rebel, sitting on crates of ammunition in the back of a truck where the Islamist flag—black with white lettering—flutters.
The jubilant rebels celebrate their victory with gunfire, while some retrieve weapons and ammunition left behind by the retreating Syrian troops after 10 hours of fierce fighting during the night.
The ground near the military post is littered with bullets of all calibre, as well as heavy machineguns and Kalashnikovs, after the rebels captured it just before dawn yesterday.
The Anadan checkpoint, about 5km northwest of Aleppo, gives the rebels free movement between Turkey and the northern city, Syria’s commercial capital.
The overrunning of the checkpoint comes just days after Syrian troops on Saturday launched an offensive to dislodge the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of deserters and armed civilians, from Aleppo.
At Anadan, a rebel could be seen taking shells from an army tank and handing them over to a colleague to be loaded into a pick-up truck. Nearby lies a still-smouldering truck that had been used to ferry soldiers, its tyres melted.
More trucks are parked under a large tent, where the rebels empty dozens of boxes of ammunition and search through whatever has been left behind by the Syrian soldiers.
A rebel picks up a book, a biography of Hafez al-Assad, former president and father of Bashar al-Assad, and tears it into pieces.
The assault on the checkpoint came soon after the call at dusk on Sunday by the muezzin signalling the end of the day’s Ramadan fasting. It was ordered by Lieutenant Rifaat Khalil.
“We had 150 rebels ready to fight, but we sent a first wave of 50 men,” says the lieutenant.
The rebels arrived from all sides and opened fire with rockets, machineguns and Kalashnikovs.
“We have arrested 25 soldiers and recovered six bodies, but maybe they took away other bodies when they fled,” adds the FSA officer.
Once the soldiers had fled, the rebels counted their own losses: four men killed.
During the battle they seized eight tanks, only one of which was dysfunctional.
“Now we can use them to fight in Aleppo,” says Khalil.
“This victory strengthens the position of the rebels in Aleppo, and God willing, all the rebels are heading to Aleppo to free the city from Assad’s gangs and the shabihas”, he says, referring to the pro-regime militiamen.
Aleppo, the country’s economic powerhouse, lies just behind a hill overlooking a dam near Anadan.
With the capture of the checkpoint, the rebels now control a major route between the Turkish border and north of Aleppo—a vital axis for the shipment of weapons, fuel and food for opposition fighters locked in battle in Aleppo.
The rebels had tried in May to take the dam held by the Syrian army but their presence in Anadan, a few hundred metres from the dam, attracted massive bombing from the soldiers and forced locals to flee.
Today Anadan is a ghost town. Its streets are dotted with shell holes, walls are blackened by fire bombs, homes lie looted and deserted with their windows broken.
“People have left their doors open and gone,” says General Abdel Nasser Firzat, commander of the rebel troops in Anadan. Firzat, who spent 10 years in Russia, defected in June to be part of the rebellion.
“My three children left Aleppo, a few hours later my wife did the same, and I left last. We ended up outside Aleppo. I took them to safety and then came here,” says Firzat who has made a spacious house in the town his temporary residence.
Firzat says the regime still “controls the skies”.
But, he asserts, Assad’s army only controls three areas of the countryside surrounding Aleppo. He points to a military map showing an airfield from where helicopters take off, and an artillery post.
As he speaks a helicopter flies high above.
“Before the army bombed us day and night but now they are too occupied in Aleppo and only bomb us during the day,” says Firzat.
Suddenly there is an explosion a few metres down the road and a cloud of dirt and dust rises. The rebels run in all directions as shells begin falling closer.
Two youngsters on a motorcycle rush to take refuge in the town. They bow their heads to protect themselves and ride as fast as possible after a shell falls about 50m from them.
The bombings continue throughout the afternoon in Anadan and surrounding villages.