Winter still clings to the ancient cultivated hillsides of the northern Syrian province of Idlib. Nights are chillingly cold mornings alternate between mist and feeble sun. Under the gnarled olive trees, the soil is naked and neatly raked.
Tens of thousands of trees in rows follow the contours of the hills to the horizon and beyond. Around here, the olives are usually harvested in November, but some local families have only just begun to try to take their crop. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to the harvest this year.
All the old rhythms and routines have been disrupted. People don’t venture out, most shops are shuttered. Petrol for transport and heating is running short. Cell phones no longer work, there is no internet and locals warn the old landlines are monitored. Families listen carefully to traffic on the roads, alert to anything unusual, to anything that sounds “military”.
The anxiety, and the fear, is palpable. Grainy YouTube videos on the television show Syrian army tanks heading for the provincial capital of Idlib City. The government has dug trenches around some of the towns. Military bases are being reinforced. The people of this area are all too aware of what is coming.
This, they say, is going to be the “next Homs”.
For months now, Idlib has breathed a thin air of defiance and bravado. The hope was that a “Syrian Benghazi” was in the making here – an area that had succeeded in keeping President Bashar al-Assad’s forces at bay. But the fragility of that hope is clear now to everyone.
“We cannot go back, because going back is more dangerous”, one activist explains to me, as we hide together in a safe house in a border village close to Turkey. “I know I will be killed”, says another, “I just don’t know when. Many Syrians feel the same way.”
We know, but cannot publish these activists’ names, for their safety.
After an initial military operation on the border town of Jisr al Shughour in June last year sent more than 10,000 refugees running for their lives into Turkey, the nascent Free Syrian Army waged enough of a guerilla campaign to stretch Assad’s forces. A decision appeared to have been taken to leave Idlib alone while the government crushed rebellions in Deraa, in the provinces around Damascus and Hama…and dealt with the outspoken and well-documented resistance in Homs.
But, as the Assad crackdown has grown in ferocity – its actions, unrestrained by international condemnation – the attention of Damascus has returned to the Northern region. Locals in Idlib cannot believe that the tragedy of Homs has failed to mobilise the international community. Now they are bracing for something as bad, if not worse.
Off the record
The most senior commander of the Free Syrian Army in the province sits sweating in front of an olive wood-fired stove. He’s come to meet us, but verifies our identities forensically before revealing his own. He’s young, smart, and close to despair.
“We have no weapons – we have nothing to fight the Syrian army,” he says.
The black market price for a Kalashnikov is now $1,300, a single bullet is $3. He tells us that most of their rifles have come from Iraq, but even there Damascus has staged an intervention – he believes Assad has an “under the table agreement” with the Iraqi government to allow only old weapons through the smuggling network. When they unwrap their consignments, the weapons are worn out, the ammunition past its expiry date.
We had heard that the Free Syrian Army was “strong and organised” in this provincial town but these terms are relative. The commander won’t give us an interview on-camera – let alone tell us his real name – because he’s a fugitive from the regular army and fears for the fate of his wider family if identified as a resistance leader. He’s relying on his former commanders believing he’s been killed as cover for the new role he has taken on.
In the town itself (which we also cannot name), anti-Assad graffiti decorates the walls and most shops are shut .”It’s been like this for weeks,” a local tells us.
Middle-aged men keep watch on the streets, behind a few token sandbags.
People from the area like to boast that they “drove out Assad’s army” on December 19 and that they have a “truce” with the military. In reality, the town feels terribly vulnerable. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders are torn between wanting to tell the world about their brave stance, and wanting to avoid provoking the regime into an early punitive strike.
‘We are alone’
“We know it is coming,” the FSA commander tells me. “But,” he says, “we don’t want to make it come more quickly.”
Coded threats of military retaliation on the Assad regime-sponsored Dounia TV have rattled everyone.
And hanging above it all, incredulity that the world stood back and watched the destruction of the Sunni districts of Homs. “We are alone. We face this alone,” says the FSA leader from Idlib province “No-one is helping us”.
Every single person we meet – from the roughest-handed farmers in the smallest villages, to the softest-handed young activists back home from their suspended universities – tell us the resistance in Syria needs weapons. “We can do this revolution on our own – we don’t need the West to fight it for us – one young man explains to me “but we can’t do it without weapons”.
They want modern rifles, RPGs and shoulder-launched missiles. They want to destroy Assad’s tanks and bring down his attack helicopters. No-one talks about non-violent resistance any more.
The FSA tells me all that has reached them so far is some small cash donations – but you can’t fight with cash if no-one will sell you the weapons, and so far none of Syria’s neighbours have allowed any significant rise in cross-border smuggling, let alone a legitimate weapons trade. It has bred a weary cynicism.
“Turkey talks, but does nothing to help,” he says.
“Qatar, Saudi Arabia? More talking, only,” he says.
They desperately want a “Safe Area” enforced by the United Nations, reminiscent of the protected enclaves of the former Yugoslavian war.
If they had that, activists and FSA alike tell us, defections from the regime and the military would increase exponentially. All that is preventing many senior leaders from walking away from the Assad regime, is the fate of their families if they do. Give them a sanctuary, they say, and the balance of power will shift dramatically.
But, it seems too late for that. Idlib province is now cross-hatched by Assad’s army lines.
Checkpoints are on every major route, and appear without warning on many minor ones. Travelling any distance without careful preparation and a route scout is impossible. Communication is hard, personal appearances hazardous. We hunker down in safe houses for days, waiting for the next short ride to another location. We are asked not to go outside. Curtains are drawn.
Seemingly every day, another town or village in the province is cut off by Assad’s security forces. The mountain area of Jabel Al-Zawiyah is the only place where some freedom of movement remains and the Free Syrian Army does not have to lurk in the shadows. But, getting there is almost impossible.
Turkey – once considered a supporter and ally of the revolution – is now merely regarded as a refuge of last resort. If the military crackdown on the province reaches the severity of Homs, then tens of thousands more refugees will flood across, say villagers we talk to. Perhaps the arrival of more than 100,000 families fleeing Assad will prompt Turkey to do more, but the people of Idlib have given up on their dream of Turkey leading a peacekeeping force into Syria to rescue them.
An eerie quiet has descended on many of Idlib’s towns. Field hospitals are being set up in secret locations. Nervous rebel fighters are gathering. There is no talk of capitulation.
“We prefer death to more humiliation”, an activist tells me. “We don’t want bread and fuel, although we need them. This is a revolution of ideals and principles. It’s a revolution of human beings who have been deprived of their humanity. We have tasted freedom and we can’t go back again.”