The graves had run into each other, mounds of red earth washed by the rain, blown by the wind. There was a fresh set undamaged by the elements, one of them no more than four feet long; it was of Hania, a three-year-old girl, the youngest of a family of five to die. None were killed by chemical agents, the deaths were delivered by conventional weapons in one of the air strikes all too regular in this part of Aleppo Province; weapons of the type which had been responsible for most of the lethal toll of 100,000 in the two- and-a-half years of pitiless strife.
“I don’t want to live any more. Why did Allah spare me? I am old and I have no one left,” whispered Abdurahman al-Shibli. The grandfather, in his seventies, was out tending sheep early in the morning when the missile tore into the farmhouse in a village near al-Bab. He sat on his haunches by the little cemetery with apple blossoms drifting in the air, wiping his rheumy eyes.
This place of solitude and grief was a world away from high politics; of dramatic votes in the Commons and of US Congressional debates; of constitutional proprieties and geopolitics of whether or not military action was justified over the slaughter of 1,400 people with sarin gas.
The villagers here did not have details of Barack Obama’s red line, or David Cameron’s repeated threats of dire consequences for the regime if it resorted to chemical warfare or the pledge by French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, last year that use of weapons of mass destruction would lead to a “massive and lightning fast” response.
However, they have heard accounts – vague and garbled ones – of what is going on in London and Washington. But “none of that matters, only this, matters,” exclaimed Zeana, a neighbour peering out from under her black hijab, gesticulating at the shattered building where Hania, her parents and two brothers died. “How long has this been going on? How long we hear they are going to help, but nothing will happen, nothing.” She too has suffered, she said. Her own brother was taken away by the Mukhabarat, the secret police; he has not been heard of since. How recently? “Twelve-and-a-half years ago, in Hama”; the brutality of those who ruled is not new here.
But the pervasive, relentless level of violence is something new. “Now they don’t bother to arrest any more, they just kill, from tanks, from the air, they killed these poor people for nothing”, said 55-year-old Zeana. I have witnessed the regime’s warplanes fire down into opposition areas of Aleppo and Idlib City, blowing up homes. But there was no apparent reason why this village should have been targeted a week ago. There were no obvious military installations in the vicinity: perhaps rebel fighters were passing by or had been staying here? The residents denied this. “They just like killing people, I have not known a time like this in all my life,” said Abdulrahman al-Shibli, shaking his head.
The people around here, villagers and families seeking refuge from towns which have been particular targets of President Assad’s forces, fear more killings will follow Western military strikes. They are, on the whole, in favour of such strikes, but they are also resigned to the regime taking retribution; there has been a sharp increase in the numbers of refugees crossing the border into Turkey in the past few days.
“What do you think will happen? What are they going to hit?” asked Haji Mustapha Dosh, who had moved with his extended family to live with his brother. We confessed we did not know for sure. “It is Allah’s will what happens to us,” he said, raising his palms in supplication.
“Welcome to Syria, where death is a way of life” is painted on a wall in Kafranbel, a town in next door Idlib province, which has become known for the black humour of its graffiti. Another says “Obama! You send us ‘weapons’ to only continue this conflict! Send us weapons to win our revolution once and for all”.
The weapons the rebels want the most are anti-aircraft missiles. These will undoubtedly have an effect on the balance of the conflict. But they are also something the West is the most wary of delivering. US agents are still trying to track down missiles taken out of Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall.
French forces in the recent intervention in Mali found their helicopter-gunships coming under fire from stocks looted from the Tripoli regime.
Half-an-hour on, as we travelled down a narrow, twisting road, a jet went by overhead, fast and relatively low. “See what we could have done with a rocket!” Grinned one of my companions, Jamal, imitating firing from a shoulder-held launcher. “Send us rockets and Obama and Cameron won’t have to worry about bombing Assad.”
The plane circled. It looked of the type I have met before, a Czech-made L-39 Albatros. Last July, riding on the back of a motorbike driven by a young activist called Bari, we had been chased along al-Bab by one of them after visiting a military base which had been taken by the rebels.
The plane repeatedly strafed but missed. It later fired a missile into a residential area, an 11-year-old boy, Abed al-Rahman, lost a leg. Nine months ago I saw him again as he was preparing to go to America for treatment, his dreams of being an athlete gone forever, vowing to return when able and help the revolution.
The al-Bab attack was one of the very first indications that the regime was prepared to use air strikes with impunity. Since then, of course, it has become a matter of grim reality, with dozens of deaths and maimings caused by a variety of weapons, including incendiaries.
There were muffled thuds in a valley a few hundred yards away, sounds of ordnance landing, followed by a cloud of dark smoke. “It’s being received by the bearded ones,” said Jamal drawing his fingers under his chin. “They have checkpoints over there. Now we have two good reasons to avoid that road.”
In the past it was regime troops and the Shabiha, the militia of the Alawite community from which the country’s elite is drawn, we had to worry about while travelling in northern Syria, now it is also the rapidly growing number of jihadist bands.
“We have to be very careful with them, they are strict about religion” said Basel, 29, who spent eight months in Aleppo as a revolutionary fighter before returning, disillusioned, to help his father’s carpentry business.
“I saw some bad things being done by people who said they were fighting for the people. These Salafists are more disciplined but I saw them shoot people because they had said things they didn’t like. One was a 15-year-old boy.” Basel’s father implored him not to continue speaking of such things.
Jabhat al-Nusra has become the bogeyman of the revolution for the West and an argument for not carrying out strikes against President Assad. Its fighters are the best armed of the rebels, and it is they who would benefit the most from an opposition victory.
But now there is a group who should be even more frightening for the West. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq and Syria (known by the gentle sounding name of Isis) – whose leader founded Jabhat al-Nusra in 2011 – are now even more hardline and its fighters have built up a fearsome reputation for dedication to jihad.
Among the Islamists it is the fighting prowess of the Chechens which is currently most celebrated. They have, supposedly, become the stuff of international power negotiations. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief is said to have described to Vladimir Putin how his country is using them as shock troops in Syria and, in return for the Russian president ending his support for the Assad regime, would ensure that Chechen militants did not attack the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
That, at least, was what was leaked to the Russian media and a Lebanese outlet; it added to the Chechen myth here. They have certainly been active, leading the assault on the Minakh air base, south of Aleppo last month which yielded an extensive arsenal. Earlier their efforts had also opened the way to an offensive against Latakia, the heartland of the Alawite community from which President Assad and the ruling elite are drawn.
It was during this campaign that a grim example came of the power of the jihadists. Kamal Hamami, a senior commander of the Free Syrian Army who had gone for a planning meeting was shot dead by members of Isis and a video purporting to show his killing was put online. I had first met fighters from al-Nusra last July in Aleppo when they were big on jihadist talk but were derided when they were among the first to cut and run when regime tanks came into the frontline at Salaheddine.
Now fighters from more moderate khatibas (brigades) like Jamal, a tough and resourceful fighter himself, are too nervous to talk openly about the Islamists. “You’ll see a lot more foreigners this time,” he said. “They have come to help; when it’s all over they will want to go back to their own countries. Syrians will rebuild Syria.”
We saw the Islamists at a distance. It was decided it would be wise not to make an approach, we took a different way. “We don’t know what instructions they have received for their emirs today,” said Yahya, another one in our group. “Their emirs are not Syrian they have their own ideas.”
There was sudden panic, our Albatros was back, now very low, seeking targets. We dispersed and dived to the ground. Jamal looked around at me and grinned: “Don’t look so worried, it’ll be alright, soon Mr Obama will be helping us.”