THEY have called it the “first free town in Syria”. Opposition forces claim to have beaten back the soldiers of president Bashar al-Assad from the mountain border town of Zabadani and plan to turn it into a hub of armed resistance against the regime in Damascus.
After five days of intensive battles, dozens of government tanks and armoured vehicles pulled back from Zabadani – only 17 miles from Damascus on the border with Lebanon – after a reported ceasefire agreement.
But the insurgents heralded it as an unprecedented victory – the first population centre the government has been unable to take control of even a part of.
“The city is effectively under the control of the Free Syrian Army,” said Mohammed al-Dais, from the Syrian Revolution General Commission. “They will use this time to create a safe space for Assad army soldiers to defect to. They need to create a stable, safe place where they can gather.”
Video footage of the town showed masked gunmen sitting on bonnets and crowding out of the windows of slowly moving vehicles, toting Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled grenades in a victory parade. Crowds gathered, cheering and chanting messages of support as the vehicles moved along the rain-swept streets.
“Everyone now is co-operating and working with the defected soldiers from the Free Syrian Army to defend Zabadani. Every citizen in the town is armed with guns, knives or stones and is waiting,” said Kamal Labwani, an opposition Syrian National Council member from Zabadani who fled the town a week ago.
Residents said they hoped Zabadani would become a safe haven for Syrian troops that want to join the opposition. “A lot of soldiers have refused to obey the orders, and have tried to escape. Many of them have been killed. We are going now release the soldiers from Bashar al-Assad’s grip and help them to escape,” said one resident.
“But this is a tenuous safety. We are frightened that they will bomb us from the air, or try again to retake the town. We need international help to make this a real safe zone.”
Government troops pulled back late on Wednesday night to garrisons more than five miles away, and food and basic supplies were allowed into the town yesterday, opposition activists reported.
It followed a verbal contract with insurgents that both sides would retreat from the streets of the town, leaving only a small police force to manage the security of the town. Peaceful demonstrations were to be allowed, said Mr Labwani.
“Syrian security officers are still there. They can move on one road in Zabadani, but they cannot hurt anyone. We told them ‘If you do anything wrong, you will be demolished’,” laughed Mr Labwani.
Opposition activists claim the regime was strong-armed into agreeing to the ceasefire by a combination of international political pressure and rebel military strength.
“They are worried about the decisions that will be made at the Arab League meeting this weekend; they are frightened of a UN Security Council resolution,” said Mr Dais. “All this has to be taken into account.”.