The drive from Al Sultan Selim al Woal Battalions house in Turkman to the little girl’s house in Akrad takes about 90 minutes on a good day. On those days, you have to pull off the road only once to avoid a passing helicopter. At various points, the roads are rocketed out, fresh craters filled with mud that scrape the car.
We cross the Aleppo-Latakia Road, usually a busy modern highway. There are no other vehicles in sight. Instead, there’s rubble everywhere. Destroyed tanks and checkpoints dot the side of the road. We get out and examine one, its interior burned out and dripping water.
Those who pass by are men toting an AK-47s. On one side of the road, a giant sign thanks us for visiting Idlib. On another, we see vast stretches of Akrad’s once-lush slopes that have now been shelled. You can drive for minutes at a time and see nothing but brown, dead trees and stumps. More than a year of war has taken its toll.
It looks like there was a big brush fire, I say.
Not a brush fire, says my FSA guide.
As the sun dims, we stop in Aido, home of Abu Firas, a wizened 63-year-old who I’m told is famous. He leads the FSA’s Hamza Battalion and oversees the other 60 brigades and 10,000 fighters on Akrad. He’s also a Salafist, a conservative Muslim. Before we meet, my guide goes ahead to ask for permission to bring a woman into the house.
Like everyone else I meet, he chain smokes and drinks tea so sweet it practically chokes me.
He says that maintaining control over Akrad and Turkman is critical: “Jebel Akrad is between Idlib and Latakia. If the regime were to control it, that would be very bad.”
Just a 15-minute drive away, a street was reduced to rubble by regime rockets. Abu Firas claims that the FSA has controlled the ground here for the past five months – that Assad’s army has been forced to resort to dropping bombs from the sky. “Inshallah, the regime is getting poor,” he says. “They no longer have power on the ground, they’ve been forced out, so they need to use rockets and TNT.”
I point out that the rockets cause a lot of damage, possibly more damage than the regime could hope to inflict from the ground. You can have all the power down below, I challenge, but so what?
He agrees, and parrots what’s on every FSA leader’s mind these days: they are in desperate need of anti-aircraft weapons, which have been promised by the military council, but with no follow-through yet.
For now, like the rest of these brigade leaders, Abu Firas is focused on preparing his fighters for hand-to-hand combat in the city and hoping that anti-aircraft rockets will come through, allowing them to begin the next battle with the mountain regions secure.
“We’ve begun training. We have officers’ training,” he says. His men, like Tareq’s young rebels, are now immediately trained in how to use the new weapons that come in (like mortars, which both brigades recently acquired). Abu Firas isn’t worried about not having anti-air guns in the city; he thinks Assad’s love for his ancestral home will stop him from bombing and destroying it.
“He can’t use jets in Latakia City,” he says. “There are too many Alawites there.”
Most FSA fighters in Latakia province think they’ve got the mountains sewed up. They’re eager to get to the city, to begin the last stretch of this long fight. No one’s more excited than Tareq.
Back in Turkman, on a plastic chair in the middle of the street outside his safe house, he’s buzzing from last night’s successful sting on Point 45, a big regime outpost a few kilometers away.
A cigarette dangles jauntily from his lips, a leering smile bares rotted teeth. He’s missing most of one hand – it got blown off. The stumps of his destroyed fingers absently knead the butt of his Kalashnikov while he recounts his evening.
His original plan was a four-battalion operation against Point 45. Tareq was on his stomach in the dark, a hundred meters from the target, when he got word that two of the battalions involved had bailed, dropping the number of FSA fighters at the scene from 250 to just 50.
They were outnumbered, but unlike Assad’s soldiers, he and his men grew up in these hills. They’re as familiar to Tareq as the back of his mangled hand.
“I know the mountain tree by tree,” he says. “I know where to escape. I know everything. So I opened fire.”
They wiped out 40 of the regime’s soldiers and shabiha thanks to the home-court advantage, he said. The operation was meticulously planned. Each battalion was trained and knew the terrain well enough to successfully improvise a slaughter against a professional army in the dead of night.
His success has left Tareq feeling cocky. “Do you want us to make another operation for you?” he asks, with a sly smile. “We can do it right now.”
Instead, we head out on a daily patrol to the front line. His guys grab their guns and load into the bed of a pickup truck rigged with adushka a large mounted machine gun, booty from a regime raid two months earlier.
It’s a short ride. A few minutes later, we speed past a barricade lined with cheeringrebels and stop, abruptly, in the middle of a nondescript two-lane road. This is it. Tareq jumps out of the driver’s seat, his fighters hefting their guns and running into the trees, agile as cats, shooting their guns.
Watch for snipers, someone says.
It’s a quiet day, so the rounds they shoot off aren’t returned. The pickup follows the men, staying on the asphalt, its giant dushka ready to provide backup.
Towards the end of the patrol, there are two huge explosions. No one bats an eyelash. One guy laughs.
“Oh that’s not the regime,” he says, when questioned. “That’s just Tareq. He’s reminding them that he’s here.”
Turkman is just 35 kilometers from Latakia City. Tareq says the march toward the city could begin late in January, though again, he cautions, that depends on both supplies and progress in Aleppo. He thinks it will take the men two or three months to get to the city, locked in bloody face-to-face combat with the regime every step of the way. Major Suheil says there will be at least six months of fighting once they arrive.
The most famous shabiha, the FSA’s biggest non-presidential target, the one who makes them lick their lips, is Assad’s first cousin, Rami Makhlouf. He’s the richer-than-Croesus owner of Syriatel, the country’s largest mobile communications company.
Before my meeting with Tareq, I had stopped at a former secret police station, where my guide says “men once went, and never came out.” It was pocked with bullet holes from where FSA forces had battled it from three points less than 200 feet away. A Syriatel banner hanging outside had been shredded. “Makhlouf,” the guide sneers.
Nearly every commander, every fighter, every civilian I talk to here is Sunni. They swear they have no problem with the civilian Alawites. They’re our friends, they say. We will not harm them after Assad falls. We will not aim for them when we go to fight in Latakia. Our problem is the shabiha. We will go after the shabiha.
Once inside the city gates, the FSA plans to solely target military checkpoints. The problem, Tareq says, is that they have no idea where they might be. The city’s so tightly guarded by the Assad army that it’s been impossible to sneak in and look.
There are more checkpoints here than in any other city, they said. Assad’s protective of his family’s homeland. His love for it runs deep. And when he escapes from Damascus – if he hasn’t already – they believe he will return to Latakia for his last stand
FSA leaders say that older, loyal Alawites in the city have begun calling younger members of the sect home from Aleppo and Damascus. They’re aware of the FSA’s plan and are desperately trying to boost their own numbers. They are keenly aware that if the FSA takes control of the city, hopes of keeping Assad in power – or the dream of creating a separate Alawite state – will be all but dashed.
“They’re dreaming of making Latakia an Alawite country,” Major Suheil says. “This dream will never come true.”
In the mountains, I find signs supporting FSA claims that the Syrian army is faltering. Men have been joining the FSA in growing numbers. Four months ago, there were 35 men in the Hateen Battalion. Today, there are 80.
There are near-daily defections from the regime outposts in Turkman. Defectors I talk to – two of whom had joined the FSA the day before – say that Syrian Army officers are scared of the FSA’s progress and skittish of what will come next.
Near the Hateen safe house, we hop out to examine rusty TNT canisters, known as barrel bombs, scattered next to the road, dropped the previous week. I am told they are cruder, more amateur than the high-end professional arsenal Assad’s men once used.
Despite these assurances, to drive through these heavily bombed hills is to trust the FSA guides implicitly.
In the swaths of Turkman, which is only partially under rebel control, the pockets alternately controlled by the FSA and the regime can be as close as a kilometer apart. A wrong turn down a steep mountain pass can be the difference between safe passage and a shootout.
Each night, Abu Adnan takes these risks when he drives to the Hateen’s command center, ten minutes away from the safe house where he often stays.
Along these roads, the Hateen Battalion have stashed tanks, souvenirs from their regime conquests, and camouflaged them with tree branches. They’re proverbial big guns for the urban battle to come.
For much of the night route, the car’s lights are off, hands hiding the glow from the dashboard, voices at a whisper. In the moonlight, a regime post is visible on a hill, lights shining.
The command center used to be a functioning public works building. Now it feels like the end of the world, windows blacked out to avoid detection, water all over the floor, gun-toting fighters huddled around a campfire laden with sticks and leaves.
There are two plastic chairs on a nearby slope, from which FSA members sit in the dark and keep watch on the treetops and still, dusty roads of the valley below. Bombs drop less than 10 kilometers away, closer, one guy says, than they have in the past. But Hateen are unconcerned – these particular mountains are considered a safe zone, too wooded for the regime to locate targets from the air.
Afterwards, back at the safe house, other members of the battalion get hungry for dinner. A messy living room is bathed in the eerie blue glow of a battery-powered light. Every few minutes, the floor shakes and the windows rattle. There’s pasta on offer, but they want meat.
Someone goes out and comes back in with a tray of scrawny dead birds. He proceeds to rip out their feathers, strip away the skin. The sound of tearing fills the room as the birds’ blood fills the tray.
The Hateen are hopped up. It’s the night before New Year’s Eve. Ordinarily, they’d be throwing a party, but it’s almost time for the night watch. Syrian songs blare from a smartphone. Four of the guys form a debka, akin to a conga line, arms around each other, hopping around, guns still strapped to their backs.
One reaches into his holster, grabs his knife, waves it around. There’s a shotgun on the coffee table. I’m playing with a bullet the length of my palm. The birds are almost done cooking. There’s a model ship on the shelf, nice plates, a television. This used to be a family home.
They dance and dance.