A growing number of residents are joining a band of defecting soldiers, some of whom claim to be part of the Free Syrian Army.

Zabadani, a small city jutting from the side of a rocky mountain and known for fruit trees and summer tourists, has become famous as something else: a surprise stronghold for President Bashar Assad's opponents who, for the moment at least, seem to have wrested most of the city from the state's control.

It is unclear exactly how that came to be. But last week, the Syrian army withdrew its tanks and armoured vehicles from the town, which sits 20 miles from Damascus near the Lebanese border. Local leaders say the withdrawal came after fierce resistance from soldiers who had defected, followed by a rare truce with the army.

Now, the government's presence is limited to a few buildings on the edge of town. Local committees manage daily affairs, and the defectors secure the city. Regular anti-government protests are held in a central square, and freed dissidents walk through town, saying they have lost their fear of the government thugs that were regular visitors.

A few stores opened for the first time in weeks on Saturday, seizing on the prospect of calm provided by a visiting delegation of Arab League observers.

But no one expects the government to just let the city of 40,000 people go. Residents talk about their moment of independence in Zabadani as a respite, rather than a sign of the Syrian uprising's changing tide. In fact, the presence of resistance fighters there may signal a more violent phase to come.

Defensive efforts

The city shows signs of a coordinated, defensive effort. Streets are littered with towering dirt mounds and blocks of stone, formations designed to block tanks. Men with walkie-talkies act as spotters in the streets. During the observers' visit on Saturday, the gunmen mostly kept out of sight.

Amid rumours that the government is massing forces outside Zabadani, local militia leaders claim that a growing number of residents are joining a band of soldiers who defected, some of whom say they are part of the Free Syrian Army, a militia of defectors with leadership based in Turkey. Local fighters' ties to the broader movement are unclear.

Mahmoud Eissa, a former lieutenant in the town of Madaya, which sits next to Zabadani and is also independent for the moment, said local commanders directed about 100 defecting soldiers in both towns. Eissa said he also had “connections” to the defectors in Turkey, but said local fighters in his town answered to a military council of former soldiers and civilians.

The militia's Turkish leaders have said they give orders to fighters inside Syria, though there is evidence of groups striking out on their own.

The state news agency and activist groups said that on Saturday, an attack on a police bus, possibly using roadside bombs, killed at least 14 prisoners being transported. Ambulances arriving in response were also attacked, the agency said. Nobody claimed responsibility, leaving it unclear whether defectors or another group was involved.

The role of armed defectors has grown, with attacks on troops, including killings and kidnappings, that at times have overshadowed the demonstrations. At the same time, many protesters defend the defectors, saying they are grateful for protection against a government that has resorted to violence against peaceful opponents.

Some of the soldiers in Zabadani say they changed sides in September, during a three-day assault by the army that sent residents into hiding in the mountains. They included two friends from the same battalion, who said they had fled because their commanders had lied to them, telling them they would find terrorists in Zabadani.

“They were all civilians,” said one man who used a pseudonym, Abu Qusay.

His friend, Abu Saad, added, “It was not as they described it.” He said his job now was to protect protesters.

Both men, who hid their faces while talking to a reporter, said they escaped only with their government-issued assault rifles. There are also signs that the defectors have heavier weapons, and they recently claimed to have destroyed an army tank.

‘A homespun movement'

Rebel leaders in the city speak proudly of what they say is a homespun movement, pairing residents defending their homes or their farms with the defectors. Emad Dalati, a local protest leader, who said he was one of the first people in town arrested after the uprising started in March, had harsh words for opposition leaders outside Syria. “They don't know anything,” he said. “If you're living outside your house, how do you know what's going on inside?”

The truce came after six days of intense fighting in the city, the result of talks between several Zabadani leaders and Major General Assef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law, according to Amer Burhan, a member of the local council. He said the council was running hospitals and sending volunteers to pick up trash.

The troops were still ringing the city, but staying away for now, he said, perhaps because of the repeated visits by the Arab League observers. “We are still besieged,” Burhan said.

The sense of siege persisted in Jisr Square, where protesters gathered around a tree where photographs hung of residents who had been killed.

The protesters called for the government's fall, but also for unity, in a plea to save Zabadani from the fate of other restive Syrian cities, like Homs, where sectarian killings have accompanied the civil unrest. “Zabadiya. Zabidya. Druse, Allawite, Islam and Christians!” they chanted.

The Arab League observers visited an apartment blown apart by an artillery shell, a driveway with a mound of spent ammunition casings and a restaurant on a hill, where residents pointed out a government sniper nest and the pattern of tank treads stamped into red dirt.

One of the observers, climbing into an armoured Mercedes for the trip back to Damascus, expressed confidence about the mission's deterrent role, saying of the army, “They are not coming back.” Then, a bit more hesitantly, he added, “I will try.” — New York Times News Service

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