FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

In the Shadow of the Krak des Chevaliers

by PATRICK COCKBURN

The battle lines of the Syrian civil war are edging closer to Krak des Chevaliers, the most famous Crusader castle ever built. The massive walls and towers of the great fortress on its hilltop glistened white in the sunshine yesterday, as the Syrian Army fought rebels in the valleys below.

The rebels hold the castle and the two nearby villages of al-Zara and al-Hosn while much of the rest of this area, 25 miles west of Homs city and just north of the Lebanese border, is inhabited by Christians who support the government. The 13th century castle was damaged by a Syrian air force attack and mortars last year and the Syrian government says it is eager to prevent further damage.

“We launched an operation to retake this area last week,” said the governor of Homs, Talal al Barazi. He said that so far the army had taken 50 per cent of al-Zara “and we think the rest of it will be in our hands within a week.” Syrian army officers on the spot were more cautious on how long the fighting was going to last, saying it might be a week or two.

The reason why the Syrian army is attacking has less to do with Krak des Chevaliers’ strength as a defensive position and more to do with strategic importance of the area in which it stands. This commands the main road between Homs and Tartous on the coast, just as it did in the 13th century when the castle was rebuilt in its present form by the Knights Hospitaller (its original and less romantic name was Crac de l’Ospital).

But Mr Barazi says of more immediate importance is the gas and oil pipelines and electric power lines that run through al-Zara which the rebels can sever at any time. They blew up the Homs-Tartous oil pipeline at al-Zara on 3 January and recently cut the power line leaving Homs city without electricity for 24 hours.

The fighting has led to losses on both sides. Mr Barazi said he had just come back from a hospital in Tal Kalakh, a town just south of Krak, after a day’s fighting in which the army “had lost 10 dead and 27 wounded, while we killed 65 terrorists and captured five of them.” The battle had eased off yesterday, a day of intense cold for Syria which saw part of the country under snow.

A further reason for the army’s push towards Krak and the land around it has to do with the sectarian geography of this part of Syria. The two centres held by the rebels, al Zara-and al-Hosn, the latter just below the castle, are Sunni Muslim and sympathetic to the rebels, but the other villages are Christian and support the Syrian government, often joining the National Defence Force militia.

Krak des Chevaliers

This part of Syria is much like Lebanon when it comes to sectarian diversity and long-held animosities exacerbated by the civil war.

Syrian army officers said that these worsened recently when two Christians, a man and a women, had a late dinner at a hotel called the Alwadi and were stopped by armed men as they drove home. “As soon as they said they came from a nearby Christian village called Marmarita they were killed,” said an officer. In another sectarian killing a Muslim from al-Hosn village was reportedly killed by Christian militiamen.

These stories of sectarian atrocities by all sides may be exaggerated in the telling, but there is no doubt about the extent to which they produce an atmosphere of hatred. An officer in Tal Kalakh produced a picture on his phone of the severed heads of two men being held by what he says were two young rebels inside al-Zara.

The army is getting closer to Krak des Chevalliers but will they try to take it? And, given the way in which the Syrian army relies on its artillery and aerial bombing, might it be destroyed?

Mr Barazi says they are conscious of Krak’s historic significance and will do everything to avoid damaging it. But the castle used to hold a garrison of 2,000 men at the height of its power before it was captured by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars in 1271. It could probably give a good account of itself still. On the other hand, the Syrian army strategy has been to blockade places held by the rebels but only to launch ground attacks against those that are strategically important. This is true of the town of al-Zara with its proximity to gas pipelines and electric power lines. Krak might well be spared for the moment but no monument – however famous – is safe in Syria as was shown by the destruction of the medieval market and Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo.

Fighting in Syria has an on-and-off quality because the Syrian army does not have the numbers to sustain heavy losses from ground attacks.

In the battle for Qusayr it was Hezbollah who fought house-to-house and suffered serious casualties. The rebels are fragmented in organisation, lack heavy weapons and are too short of ammunition to launch big offensives. But though the fighting is intermittent, it very seldom stops. On our way back to Homs from Tal Kalakh a tank briefly blocked the road as it took up position and fired a shot from its gun into the al-Wa’ar district of Homs city, whose 400,000 people are Sunni and where government and rebels dispute control.

Army officers based in Tal-Kalakh in charge of the operation were not saying much yesterday. A burly colonel in his command said “the attack is a military secret.” But he did explain the reason for launching it was that “this area is strategically important because it is so close to Lebanon.”

Last June the government and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, had one of its few clear cut victories when they captured the rebel town of al-Qusayr a few miles east of Tal-Kalakh.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

 

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 30, 2017
William R. Polk
What Must be Done in the Time of Trump
Howard Lisnoff
Enough of Russia! There’s an Epidemic of Despair in the US
Ralph Nader
Crash of Trumpcare Opens Door to Full Medicare for All
Carol Polsgrove
Gorsuch and the Power of the Executive: Behind the Congressional Stage, a Legal Drama Unfolds
Michael J. Sainato
Fox News Should Finally Dump Bill O’Reilly
Kenneth Surin
Former NC Governor Pat McCory’s Job Search Not Going Well
Binoy Kampmark
The Price of Liberation: Slaughtering Civilians in Mosul
Bruce Lesnick
Good Morning America!
William Binney and Ray McGovern
The Surveillance State Behind Russia-gate: Will Trump Take on the Spooks?
Jill Richardson
Gutting Climate Protections Won’t Bring Back Coal Jobs
Robert Pillsbury
Maybe It’s Time for Russia to Send Us a Wake-Up Call
Prudence Crowther
Swamp Rats Sue Trump
March 29, 2017
Jeffrey Sommers
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon: Real Threats More Serious Than Fake News Trafficked by Media
David Kowalski
Does Washington Want to Start a New War in the Balkans?
Patrick Cockburn
Bloodbath in West Mosul: Civilians Being Shot by Both ISIS and Iraqi Troops
Ron Forthofer
War and Propaganda
Matthew Stevenson
Letter From Phnom Penh
James Bovard
Peanuts Prove Congress is Incorrigible
Thomas Knapp
Presidential Golf Breaks: Good For America
Binoy Kampmark
Disaster as Joy: Cyclone Debbie Strikes
Peter Tatchell
Human Rights are Animal Rights!
George Wuerthner
Livestock Grazing vs. the Sage Grouse
Jesse Jackson
Trump Should Form a Bipartisan Coalition to Get Real Reforms
Thomas Mountain
Rwanda Indicts French Generals for 1994 Genocide
Clancy Sigal
President of Pain
Andrew Stewart
President Gina Raimondo?
Lawrence Wittner
Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?
March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail