Herve Bar, AFP
Last updated: 17 October, 2012

Syrian village becomes heart of rebellion against Assad

They embrace differing philosophies and boast varying strengths but the five armed groups occupying Syria’s Atme village near the Turkish border are united in one common goal: overthrow of the regime.

The farming village a stone’s throw from Syria’s northern frontier has been swelled by civilians displaced by the conflict which has ravaged the country for more than 19 months, the population rising from 6,000 to a sizeable 14,000.

Adding to the numbers, four Islamist armed groups as well as the rebel Free Syrian Army have set up rear bases in Atme from where they send fighters to do battle with the army at the front lines in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Each faction controls a sector of the village, apparently cohabiting peacefully, and the population appears to accept them since they are battling a common enemy.

A group calling itself Battalion 309 occupies the northern entrance of Atme, the Nussur al-Islam (Hawks of Islam) fighters control a key checkpoint while the Suqur al-Islam (Eagles of Islam) have taken over the public school.

The Al-Nusra Front, which has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings in Aleppo and Damascus, meanwhile has set up in a villa near the centre of the village, while FSA rebels head constantly to and from the front lines.

For new recruits in the Battalion 309 unit, the day begins with a vigorous run followed by devotion to reading excerpts from the Koran, Islam’s holy book, as they sit in a circle around an old imam in the middle of an olive grove.

Then follows military training classes and courses in armed tactics.

“We have the same enemy,” says Abu Mahmud, the commander of Battalion 309, explaining the cooperation between the various armed factions.

His fighters, who all hail from Atme or villages in the region, go about on foot or four-wheel-drive vehicles.

A village elder confirms that Atme marks a harmonious centre of the rebellion against the Assad government.

“All our chiefs pass through here: the politicians, the military and the Islamists,” says the man who declines to be identified by name.

Some of those fighting under the banner of the Al-Nusra Front, which reportedly has close ties to Al-Qaeda, have distinct African features while others can be heard conversing in English, rather than in Arabic.

“They are very discreet and cause no problem,” says a villager.

The armed groups, who differ in size with only 35 fighters in the ranks of Battalion 309 and more than 100 serving under Al-Nusra Front, take turns to do battle in Idlib and Aleppo.

When one group returns for rest and supplies, another heads off to the battlefield.

Atme is also home to a hospital which treats wounded fighters and to mechanics who service vehicles and weapons, as well as being a first port of call for fighters heading to the front from the Turkish border.

Regular police packed up and left the village eight months ago and the central government offices are all shuttered.

To fill the vacuum, rebels have set up committees to deal with problems besetting everyday life, including one in charge of civilians displaced by the deadly fighting that has gripped Syria since mid-March last year.

Two Islamist courts linked to Nussur al-Islam and Suqur al-Islam deal with serious issues, such as the fate of prisoners captured at the battlefront, including government troops or pro-regime shabiha militiamen.

At least 10 shabiha fighters have been brought before the courts in the past few months. While eight of them were acquitted, two were sentenced to death by firing squad and executed, according to judge Ahmad Mohamad Najeeb.

Najeeb heads the courts and is also the commander of the Nussur al-Islam group.

Private disputes are brought up before a neighbourhood imam or village elder, as was the case before the uprising.