BAB AL-HAWA, Syria (Reuters) - Rebel fighter Ismail watches approvingly as local villagers loot beer and whisky from the burnt-out duty free shop at Bab al-Hawa, the border post between Syria and Turkey seized from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Thursday.
“This is the people’s money; they are taking it back,” he said. “Whoever wants to should take it. There is no shame or wrongdoing.”
Syria’s duty-free shops are owned by businessman Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the Syrian president, making them a potent symbol for the poor Sunni villagers and rebels who form the backbone of an uprising motivated by a deep sense of injustice and anger at the Assad family wealth.
Youths on scooters arrived from nearby villages to empty the charred duty free shop and warehouse, whose walls were already daubed with anti-Assad graffiti. “Down with the Iranian agent”, “Leave child killer” and “Free Army forever” the slogans read.
Some rebels had smashed bottles of alcohol to stress their Islamic opposition to drinking - leaving a powerful smell of liquor in the charred duty-free complex.
But others turned a blind eye as local villagers carried off Heineken beer and Chivas whisky along with cartons of tobacco for hubble bubble pipes.
“This is yours. Take it away,” said 23-year-old fighter Sameh, offering up a case of 12 Black Label whisky bottles before being politely turned down.
A few other rebels among the dozens at the post had taken up defensive positions; but there was little sign of order among the Free Syrian Army fighters who seized Bab al-Hawa and two other crossings to Turkey and Iraq in the aftermath of a bomb attack on Assad’s inner circle in Damascus.
Nobody had yet taken down the tattered Syrian flag still hanging over the charred duty-free shop. Asked why they had not raised their own rebel flag in its place, Sameh answered: “Our banner is ‘There is no god but God’. That is our flag and banner.”
The rebels vowed to resist any army counter-attack and said they already controlled most of the land stretching from Bab al-Hawa to a city 30 km (20 miles) to the south.
“From here until Idlib the army is done with,” said Sameh, who like other rebels would give only his first name. “The army is only present in some of the military bases.”
Assad has failed to speak in public since Wednesday, adding to the sense that Syria is being torn from the grasp of his family, which has ruled it as a personal fiefdom for more than four decades.
“We are here until we have crushed this tyrannic regime,” said Ibrahim, a fighter in jeans and blue-checked shirt clutching his rifle.
There was no sign of the army, though gunshots could be heard in the distance and rebel fighters said Syrian army tanks were only 2-3 km away.
And despite suggestions they were poorly equipped - Sameh said that, “some of us were trying to shoot our AK-47s and they didn’t fire”, - they were all upbeat.
“We won’t let them come back,” said another fighter, Abdulatif.
Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Myra MacDonald