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Low on ammo, rebels drive in northern Syria slows

Tuesday - 3/5/2013, 4:12pm  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013 file photo, Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions as they observe the Syrian army forces base of Wadi al-Deif, at the front line of Maaret al-Numan town, in Idlib province, Syria. The rebels' capture of this strategic city was a key success in their advances in northern Syria against regime forces. But it's so far proven an incomplete victory. Maaret al-Numan remains a shell of a city. One major reason: Rebels have been unable to take a large regime military base on the edge of the city. Artillery fire from Wadi Deif and other nearby government strongholds regularly thuds into its largely empty residential buildings, while warplanes pound surrounding villages. The vast majority of the population has fled and it's too unsafe for them to return. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

STEVE NEGUS
Associated Press

MAARET AL-NUMAN, Syria (AP) -- The rebels' capture of this strategic city was a key success in their advances in northern Syria against regime forces. But it's so far proven an incomplete victory. Maaret al-Numan remains a shell of a city.

One major reason: Rebels have been unable to take a large regime military base on the edge of the city. Artillery fire from Wadi Deif and other nearby government strongholds regularly thuds into its largely empty residential buildings, while warplanes pound surrounding villages. The vast majority of the population has fled and it's too unsafe for them to return.

The fighters have the base surrounded, and deserters have told them the 350 troops from President Bashar Assad's army inside are short on supplies, outnumbered and isolated. But the rebels have supply problems of their own, with few bullets and fewer still specialized anti-tank weapons needed to deal the final blow to the base, where some three dozen tanks and armored vehicles are holed up.

"If I had ammunition, I could take Wadi Deif in 24 hours and stop the destruction of this town," said Sair Mandil, the commander of the local rebels. He spoke from his command post, set up in a 17th century caravan trading post that had been turned into a local museum. The caravanserai's old stone walls can withstand rocket strikes better than the city's more modern buildings.

This is one of dozens of small stalemates across northern Syria that have fueled rebel frustration over the international community's reluctance to provide their fighters with heavier and more weapons. The United States said last week it will begin providing non-lethal aid to the rebel fighters -- mainly food and medicine . But rebel commanders say that without stronger arms they cannot take larger military bases and solidify their advances.

Over the past months in Idlib province, where Maaret al-Numan is located, rebels have overwhelmed a string of towns and villages, capturing military checkpoints and installations. But the bigger the base, the harder a nut it is to crack, giving the military a continued foothold.

In that way, Idlib is shaping up much like neighboring Aleppo province, to the northeast. Last year, rebels took over Aleppo province nearly entirely, gaining unquestioned control of towns and border crossings into Turkey. But they have been unable to take a number of key bases, from which regime artillery and relentless airstrikes continue to harry rebel towns. The province's capital, Aleppo city, remains one of the country's bloodiest battlegrounds as rebels and regime forces fight over it.

Rebel control in Idlib is similar. Idlib city, the province's capital, remains almost completely in regime hands, as do some of the province's larger towns. But the pattern is the same: Rebel control spreading, but undermined by the regime's hold on crucial bases.

Perhaps the rebels' biggest victory in Idlib province has been in Maaret el-Numan. The battle for the city began in October, with rebels systematically capturing the army's outposts in the town. The last to fall was an army post in a restaurant on the highway, leaving the town in their control. The city is strategic because it sits astride a major supply route linking the capital, Damascus, with Idlib city and, further to the north, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo.

Some small signs of normal life have returned. A handful of shops have reopened. Rubble has been cleared away from most major streets. An Islamic court has been set up to resolve local disputes, one of the few vestiges of any sort of administration.

But only around 3,000 of its estimated 85,000 inhabitants remain in the city, local activists say. There is little electricity and no running water. Most residents have dispersed into the countryside or to refugee camps on the Turkish border.

Sometimes the regime's strikes cause casualties. Latifa Baqoul's two children were caught in a blast at their house in a nearby village in mid-February. Ahmed, 5, manages a brave smile as his parents show journalists the burn covering much of his lower back. But his 4-year-old sister Bushra, wounded in the arm, bursts into tears.

"God stop the planes," their mother sobs.

In the countryside elsewhere in the province, other units have found their progress stalled for lack of ammunition. So they have largely gone into a holding position. On a recent day, a squad from the Knights of the North rebel brigade moved up a rocky hillside to survey nearby regime outposts, probing for any weak points.

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