Jabal Al-Akrad, Syria - The white minivan packed with armed Syrian fighters hurtled along the narrow winding road and passed old stone houses nestled among lush orchards of apples, pomegranates and figs clinging to dry-stone terraces stepped into the soaring pine-covered mountains and rocky ravines of Jabal al-Akrad in Syria's northwestern Latakia province.
The seven men munched on potato chips as revolutionary songs, mainly Islamist but a few secular, played through the van's speakers: "We are your soldiers, Osama [bin Laden]. We seek martyrdom," went one.
There was another soundtrack playing outside - the roar of MiG fighter jets and the soft thump-thump of helicopter rotor blades before they opened their doors to drop large improvised explosives packed into barrels. A MiG suddenly swooped directly overhead, prompting the van to screech to a halt. The men clambered out and hid under the sprawling branches of a walnut tree by the side of the road.
A rebel 23-mm anti-aircraft gun nearby (heard but not seen) chased the jet with several thunderous rounds. It was joined by several other anti-aircraft guns of various calibers. All missed their target. A chicken clucked. An old man in a red and white checkered headscarf, riding an ash-gray donkey a shade darker than the color of his whiskers, slowly continued up the steep path, seemingly oblivious to events around him.
After 10 minutes and several circular passes, the jet again dived in low and unleashed its explosive payload into an adjacent hill, creating plumes of white smoke that obscured the gentle, rounded mountaintop like a vertical cloud.
The men of the Ansar al-Din battalion got back into the van and drove toward the many other plumes of smoke rising from the hills. They were headed to one of the most important front lines in the Syrian civil war: the battle for the mountain heartlands of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, his ancestral homeland and the backbone of his regime.
Sunnis make up about 70 percent of Syria's population, Alawites some 12 percent, with the remainder composed of Christians, Druze and Shiites and Kurds of various sects. In these mountains, however, the demographics are reversed, with Sunnis in the minority and Alawites the overwhelming majority.
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When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, it was a popular protest against an authoritarian regime, not a Sunni fight against the country's Alawite leader, but it has morphed into a civil war with an increasingly sectarian tone. Many of Assad's opponents are Sunni because most Syrians are Sunni. Many of Assad's supporters are Alawites because the Assads (Bashar and his late father and predecessor, Hafez) built a formidable clan-based Alawite substructure in the security and armed forces and within the elite political and economic classes. Still, there are Sunni soldiers fighting for the regime, as well as men from other sects, and there are a few (but not many) Alawites in the opposition.
These Alawite mountains are where many believe Assad might not only retreat to - should he lose the capital, Damascus - but also try to establish a breakaway Alawite state. That state would include the rounded spine of mountaintops of Jabal al-Akrad and the adjacent Jabal al-Turkman chain, down to the Mediterranean coastal plain and the country's two main port cities of Latakia and Tartous.
To date though, Latakia province has largely been shielded from the full force of the war's destructive power, protected by some of the Syrian military's most formidable units - both uniformed and the nonuniformed paramilitary "shabiha" militias. As a result, its coastal capital, Latakia, has become a refuge for tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting elsewhere. Parts of it, however, have fallen out of the regime's hands. Last year, Islamist rebels won control of most of Latakia's Sunni villages in the countryside bordering Turkey. Since then, the front line here has been largely frozen. The Islamists waited in Salma and Doreen, the closest Sunni villages to regime-controlled Alawite territory. Then in the first week of August, they pushed forward, quickly snatching 11 Alawite villages in fierce clashes.
The men in the van disembarked in a small Sunni hamlet near Salma, narrowly dodging an artillery round that landed some 50 meters from their vehicle. They were to relieve colleagues stationed in the Alawite villages. But in a sign of the ferocity of the fight and the regime's bid to hold on to these mountains, on August 19, just five days after the team from Ansar al-Din arrived from Turkey, all 11 villages were swiftly retaken by the regime in the span of some 48 hours.
I can't go to battle and have the Free Army telling the regime my plans. We work alone [without the FSA], but we are not living on our own planet.
The battalion was one of the smaller groups involved in this fight, which is spearheaded by a hardcore Islamist coalition made up of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, its fiercer partner the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, Suqoor el Ezz, Ahrar al-Sham and Katibat il Muhajiroon (a battalion made up solely of foreign fighters from Chechnya, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world as well as a number of European countries, including Belgium, France, Austria and Germany, according to other rebels).
Many of the other groups also include foreign fighters within their ranks; some are even led by foreigners. All are not merely outside the broad, loose umbrella of the more moderate rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) but in some cases openly antagonistic to it, accusing it, among other things, of keeping the front frozen to protect the minority Alawites.
Men like Omar, a Syrian member of Jabhat al-Nusra from Latakia, view the FSA as an obstacle. "We wanted to work. They wouldn't let us," he said. "I can't go to battle and have the Free Army telling the regime my plans. We work alone [without the FSA], but we are not living on our own planet. There are others. News gets out. You have people like Abu Basir, who try to stop our fight."
It is perhaps no coincidence that Abu Basir, a member of the FSA's Supreme Military Council representing Latakia, was killed in mid-July, just weeks before the front line heated up. Abu Basir was shot dead in an altercation with the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a fearsome group more commonly referred to simply as Il Dawla (the State) - which is exactly what it hopes to replace.
Few if any of the Islamists here mourned Abu Basir's passing. The splits within rebel ranks are many and varied, but perhaps none are as sharp as the rift between conservative Islamists (like Jabhat al-Nusra and its ideological partners) and the less Islamist FSA groups. The bitterness and suspicion is strong. "There are many plotting against us here," said Abu Moaz, the commander of a battalion of the nationwide Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigades who helped establish the group in this coastal province. "Some people, in their hearts, have no desire to help us in our work. I'm talking about the military command in general and groups of the Free Syrian Army and groups to protect civilians, or minorities, to be more specific. These people do not want us to work on this front here at all."
That charge is rejected by Colonel Mustafa Hashim, a senior leader of the Supreme Military Council and the commander of the western front, which includes the coastal areas. "This talk is not accurate," the 28-year army veteran said. "I've been on the front for the past year, working to open it. If it was frozen, that's because we lacked ammunition and weapons."
He also rejected the Islamists' charges against Abu Basir and made it clear that the FSA will not allow an Alawite state or any partitioning of Syria. "We were never sectarian," he said, "but I am surprised that after more than two and a half years, we still haven't seen real opposition to the regime within the Alawite sect. Only a few have defected from them. They should think logically, not emotionally."
Resentment of Alawites runs deep here, and not just among the fighting men. While conservative Islamists consider them "kuffar" (infidels, disbelievers) because of their religious beliefs, others dislike them because of their ties to the regime and the social mobility that that entailed.
Women here speak of sons who could not find jobs after graduating but whose Alawite classmates could. Defectors tell of how the chain of command meant little if a Sunni officer found himself in a dispute with an Alawite underling. All speak of how the formidable four-decade-old nepotistic regime built by Hafez al-Assad elevated the social status of Alawites - who were, they acknowledge, second-class citizens before that - and bestowed economic advantages on them. Still, not all Alawites benefited under the Assads, but two and a half years into an increasingly bitter conflict that has left at least 100,000 dead, that distinction is disappearing.
"We gave them many opportunities to stand with us, bring down Bashar and elect a new leader," says Abu Sami, the portly head of a small group of local men called Ahfad Salaheddine, or the Grandsons of Salaheddine (named after Saladin, the Islamic warrior who used these mountains in his fight against the Crusaders). "They refused. They said, 'Bashar only.' They said, 'Assad or we burn the country,'" he added, reciting common pro-regime slogans.
His group was neither Islamist nor FSA, he said, just sons of Latakia, but they had little sympathy for its Alawite sons. "The majority needs to be protected before the minority," he said. "There's been so much blood. Did you see the massacre in Baniyas? In Homs? The massacres in Latakia?" he said, naming the sites of mass killings blamed on the regime and its "shabiha" militias. "Nobody moved to stop these internationally, but now, as soon as we opened this front and killed a few hundred soldiers and "shabiha," the whole world is crying out fearing for the Alawites. What about the thousands of Muslim Syrians who were killed? What about them? How come nobody cared about them?"
But how to distinguish an enemy from a bystander in these Alawite villages the rebels entered or were trying to enter? Is everyone the enemy, by dint of being Alawite? Is it just the men? Just those carrying arms?
'This country is either ours or theirs'
The thing about civil conflicts is that today's enemies are usually yesterday's neighbors. "The people of the villages here know each other," Abu Moaz, the Ahrar al-Sham commander, said. "It's clear. We know who the collaborators are, who is working with the regime." The other determinant of an enemy, he said, was "that anyone carrying a weapon will be killed, whether a woman or child."
Some of his colleagues, like Abu Mustafa, of Ansar al-Din, used a broader brush. "The war in Syria is ideological," he said. "Let's be honest. It's sectarian, and it's civil. It’s us against the Alawites." He didn't have a problem with the Druze or Christians, he said, because they were neutral. "But if somebody, whether Sunni or Christian, stands with the regime, he is our enemy. And the Alawites are all with the regime, so they are all our enemy."
The Syrian state news agency said that mass graves were discovered in two of the recaptured 11 Alawite villages but gave no figure for the number of dead. The Islamists don't deny that they killed many men. When they initially seized the villages, they captured 105 Alawite women and children they are still holding, to be used in a prisoner swap with the regime.
There's little sympathy for them among the few remaining locals in Salma and its surroundings, even among the women (although they have been permitted access to medical treatment). "Let them feel what we feel. It's one in a thousand of what we have experienced," said one woman, a grandmother named Amira. She wasn’t sure she could live again with her Alawite neighbors. "I don't know," she said. "I really don't. They wanted this to be sectarian from the beginning."
"This country is either ours or theirs," said her elderly brother-in-law, who was listening nearby as she made lunch.
But it's not a simple duality. There is also the question of whether Sunnis in the opposition can live with one another and how, given their growing divisions along social, ideological and personal lines.