News / Middle East

Assad Forces Defeated in Syria's Raqqa, Ambushed in Iraq

A statue of President Bashar Al-Assad's father, Hafez Al-Assad, is pulled down as people celebrate in Raqqa Mar. 4, 2013.
A statue of President Bashar Al-Assad's father, Hafez Al-Assad, is pulled down as people celebrate in Raqqa Mar. 4, 2013.
Syrian rebels appear to have captured the northern city of Raqqa, in one of the biggest gains of their two-year revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
In another blow to the Syrian government Monday, suspected al-Qaida militants killed 48 Syrian security personnel inside Iraq, as the Syrians were traveling to a border crossing to return home.
In Raqqa, activists posted videos on the Internet showing residents celebrating the rebel victory on Monday, tearing down a banner of Assad over a central square and toppling a statue of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.
Activists said some government troops remained holed up in a military compound in the city. Sunni-majority rebels opposed to Assad's 12-year minority Alawite rule have been trying to oust his forces from predominantly-Sunni Raqqa for weeks.
Uprising milestone
If the rebel takeover is independently confirmed, it would mark the first Syrian provincial capital to fall into opposition hands. Syrian rebels also hold parts of the major cities of Aleppo and Homs, and some suburbs of Damascus.
Syria observer Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma said Raqqa is strategically important because it is located on the highway to the major northeastern towns of Qamishli, Hasakah and Deir el-Zour.
Landis, who authors the blog Syria Comment, said Raqqa also is near a major oil producing region and is a farming hub because of its proximity to Assad Lake and the Euphrates River.
"This is a Sunni region [that] has been very faithful to [Assad's] Baath party throughout the years," he said.
"But [Raqqa] has been extremely poor and underprivileged. It has not gotten a lot from the state. It hoped that the building of Assad Dam along the Euphrates River would bring a lot of irrigation, new farmland and riches. None of that really panned out."
Government resistance
Despite the setback in Raqqa, pro-Assad fighters remain in control of central Damascus, his seat of power, and other parts of western Syria populated by his fellow Alawites.
Landis said Assad's army has been trying to consolidate its hold of those areas.
"The Syrian military is attacking around [the central city of] Homs and to the north of Latakia. It is fattening up the areas under its control, particularly around the Alawite mountains and on the highway from Damascus up toward Homs and to the west. But it is relinquishing much of the territory around Aleppo and to the east."
In other amateur videos posted on the Internet Monday, rebels in Homs appeared to fight back against a government offensive, while opposition fighters on the western outskirts of Aleppo claimed the capture of a police academy.
Conflict spreads
Dozens of Syrian security personnel who entered Iraq last week were ambushed as Iraqi authorities were escorting them back to Syria. Iraqi officials said the attack killed 48 Syrians and at least seven Iraqis, and they blamed it on Sunni al-Qaida militants.
The Assad loyalists had crossed into Iraq via the northern border terminal of Yaarabiya to escape Syrian rebel attacks. Iraqi security forces were transporting them to the southern border crossing of al-Walid when the ambush happened in Iraq's Anbar province.
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government publicly has refused to take sides in the Syrian civil war. Baghdad said it granted entry to the pro-Assad forces as a humanitarian gesture and warned all parties in Syria not to bring their fight into Iraq.
Islamist alliance
Landis said the ambush appears to be the work of al-Qaida's Iraqi branch working in tandem with Syria-based Sunni militants such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
"Most of the big tribes along the border have members on both sides, in Iraq and Syria. They are helping each other with arms, they are helping each other attack Syrian army elements in that region," he said.
"[Syrian Sunnis] are working hand-in-glove [together] with Iraqi Sunnis against the Shi'ite governments in Iraq and Syria, both [of whom] are allied with Iran."
Assad's Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has warned that a rebel takeover of Syria could embolden Iraqi Sunni militants trying to destabilize his government.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
March 05, 2013 7:20 PM
There is no escaping justice for Bashar al Assad. He is going to pay through the nose for the thousands of innocent civilians he has bombed, thousands and thousands he made homeless, and millions of lives he has ruined. This is 2013, you can't kill thousands of innocent people and get away with it. He will be served whether he likes it or not.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs