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Syrian rebels flying black Islamist flag seize artillery base

By David Enders, McClatchy Newspapers –

MAYADIN, Syria — After a siege that lasted nearly a month, Syrian government soldiers abandoned an artillery base in the town of Mayadin Thursday morning, handing anti-government rebels in southeastern Deir al-Zour province a key victory that will allow them to move next to the airport near the provincial capital, one of the last positions the Syrian military controls in the province.

“Then we are going to Damascus!” rebels shouted on Thursday afternoon as they hoisted a black flag above the captured base, which had been a livestock feed plant before the Syrian military took it over.

The battle for control of Deir al-Zour is one of the least watched in Syria, with no foreign reporters visiting this oil-producing region in months. But the struggle here is an important one, with the rebels hoping to use their advance to cut off the government’s access to its oil fields.

How quickly the rebels can eject the military entirely from the province is uncertain, however. The Syrian military still controls the roads leading into the provincial capital, also known as Deir al-Zour, though the rebels are in the process of effectively surrounding the military there.

Rebels said Syrian army reinforcements sent from Tadmor, 100 miles to the west, helped evacuate Syrian soldiers from the artillery base at Mayadin. As the reinforcements arrived, rebels engaged them on the road to the base, destroying at least one Syrian army tank before the rebels were driven back by repeated attacks by a pair of Syrian air force jets and a helicopter.

The rebels effectively have cut off soldiers at a number of Syrian army bases in recent weeks around the country, including Hamdan Airport, also in Deir al-Zour, near the city of Abu Kamal on Syria’s border with Iraq. On Tuesday, rebels overran a military base east of the country’s largest city, Aleppo, after a siege there. Last week, after another siege, rebels overran a pair of military bases on the eastern side of the country’s capital, Damascus, and appeared to have captured a number of weapons there, including pieces of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems.

The fight for the base here was a costly one.

“We lost 30 men attacking this base,” said Hajj Hamed, a high school math teacher as he sat on the front line on Monday and bullets whizzed overhead, punctuated by occasional grenade and mortar fire. Among the men he led was one of his students, 17 years old.

“He wanted to join. How could we stop him?” he asked.

On Tuesday, four soldiers defected from the base. The defectors were all from areas where the rebels have a strong presence and were, like their captors, Sunni Muslims.

“How many Alawites are on the base?” one of the rebels asked the defectors. Alawites are adherents of an offshoot of Shiite Islam and the sect to which Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, belongs. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims; a chief grievance of many of the rebels is the claim of decades of discrimination by Alawites, who dominate the country’s political, military and economic elites.

Conscripts in the Syrian army are not allowed to visit their families for fear they will join the rebel ranks or simply fail to return to their posts.

“It has been more than a year since I have seen my family,” said one of the defectors, who had walked across the dangerous no-man’s land to join the rebels.

The rebels twice attempted to take the defectors back to the base with a megaphone in order to encourage the soldiers there to surrender, but fire from the base drove them back.

The rebels withstood multiple air strikes, and on Wednesday they decided to make a final assault on the base. A helicopter that had been dropping weapons and food to the surrounded soldiers had failed to appear for three days, and rebels lay in wait for it with a pair of rockets they had captured from the Syrian military in an earlier battle. But instead of the helicopter, the reinforcements arrived via a nearby highway.

The flags that were hoisted by the rebels at the base were not the one used by rebels groups that have pledged allegiance to the secular Free Syrian Army. Rather it was a black flag flown in particular by Islamist groups that are heavily involved in the fight against the government in this province. One building at the captured base flew the flag of Jabhat al-Nusra, a group of fighters that has called openly for the establishment of a Syrian state based on Islamic law and that some fear has ties to al-Qaida.

“They are just one of the groups that is fighting here,” said a rebel commander after the capture of the base.

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