The rebels might be outgunned, but it is clear they are learning how to use the weaponry they have effectively. Two burned-out tanks loll in the road, evidence of an unsuccessful government reinforcement attempt during the battle. One had its turret blown off, the result of a rocket-propelled grenade shot that was either very skilled or very lucky. Fighters said eight other tanks retreated after the lead tanks were destroyed.
The rebels are taking shifts guarding newly captured checkpoints that ring the town, watching and waiting for the reinforcements they have been told are coming to help with the final push on Damascus.
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“Every day, more are coming, from all the towns to the north,” said a fighter at one checkpoint who identified himself as Abu Zaid. He predicted that the rebels could be ready for an offensive as early as next week. “Bashar al-Assad will be killed in Damascus soon,” he said.
But their hold on al-Tal was challenged that afternoon by two artillery shells that crashed into the center of town. Residents gathered to survey the damage from what they said were the first artillery rounds to hit al-Tal.
Fighting continued in other parts of the country even as the army was mopping up in Damascus, with rebels claiming to be gaining ground in the northern city of Aleppo. Residents said that the clashes had not yet reached the commercial center of Syria’s biggest city but that the battles in outlying neighborhoods could be heard clearly.
The rebels have made significant gains in northern rural areas of the country in recent months, but even there the battle lines are fluid, and towns and villages frequently change hands. Kurdi, the Free Syrian Army spokesman, pointed to the rebels’ recent capture of a number of border posts, some of which have changed hands several times in the past four days, notably the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border.
“We do not keep control of crossings and checkpoints. We controlled Bab al-Hawa, then we pulled out, then we controlled it again, and so it goes on,” he said. “We cannot say the Free Syrian Army is in complete control, and we cannot say the regime army is in complete control, and this will stay the same until the Free Syrian Army gets heavy weapons and there are more defections.”
Sly reported from Antakya, Turkey. Suzan Haidamous contributed from Beirut.