Approaching front lines is usually the same. First come the fields and the farmers still hopefully taking in their crops, the little villages where the buses and trucks are mixed up with military traffic, the barber shops and clothing stores catering for the soldiers.
Then comes the occasional smashed house, checkpoints and a disused railway line, followed by a village of ruins and burning fields where the shells have set the corn alight. There are a few tanks skulking behind a gutted villa, columns of brown smoke and then the officer in the army who knows – is absolutely convinced, in a very loud voice – that victory will be theirs.
It was like that along the Orontes, just half a mile from the Islamist lines outside Jisr al-Shugur. The villages were as unknown as those of the Somme must have been in 1913. Shatha, Jourine, al-Ziarah and finally Frikeh on a knoll about the captured town, now entirely in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, from which the last besieged Syrian troops fought their way out to death or freedom last month.
Colonel Saleh commands the soldiers who were to have broken through the lines to rescue them and who did manage to bash their way miles through the forces of the “Army of Conquest” – but were finally halted within sight of the three-storey hospital from which the Syrian soldiers finally emerged. You can still see the white-painted building which almost entombed them, just behind the Jisr al-Shugur sugar factory.
Col Saleh, a big portly man with shades who was born in a nearby village, sat in his command post, an old single-storey home beside a shell-holed street, offering cherries and advice to his visitors in a very – and I mean very – strong voice. We were sitting in part of Idlib province, he shouted (the only tiny bit of Idlib not in the hands of his Islamist enemies, he might have added), and his soldiers would not rest until every inch of the Syrian Arab Republic was free of “terrorists”.
This sounded a tall order after the fall of Palmyra and Jisr al-Shugur, but the colonel was in his element, oblivious to the columns of smoke rising from the neighbouring hills and the occasional knock-knock of bullets.
His soldiers were men of honour, he boomed. Whenever he had captured a “terrorist”, he had never killed him – as the “terrorists” did their prisoners – but handed him over to “the security”, which admittedly sounded a bit like a death sentence. “We can lose a town – this happens in war,” he declared, mindful, no doubt, of the captured town less than a mile from him, not to mention the recent loss of Palmyra. “But we like to think of ourselves as doctors, either cutting out the tumour or fighting the germs which have infected our body. From the plains [of the Orontes] into the mountains, we have advanced and we will never stop until Syria has returned to normal.”
He “knew” the Syrian army would be victorious. Col Saleh even expressed his confidence that the son of President Bashar al-Assad would one day be leader of Syria. Presumably after elections.
But to the sunburnt, bearded, hard-faced Syrian soldiers in the street outside, who snapped to attention and grinned at their colonel, the roaring-voiced officer was probably the man they needed at this hour. “I come from a mountain village just to the south of here,” he confided to us. “That’s why I speak so loudly.” I suggested, Wellington-like, that if he did not frighten his enemy, he certainly frightened me. Alas, the colonel took the remark seriously.
High above him, across a broken motorway that once led to Jisr al-Shugur, a railway viaduct carried its rusting tracks through Islamist-held territory almost to the Turkish border where, the Syrians believe, their enemies to the north receive their arms.
“We fought our way up here, hand to hand, and now confront the enemy,” the colonel announced. Which was true, although it must have been a close-run thing. Jabhat al-Nusra forces infest the hill of Zaazouni just to the south-east of us and the mountains to the east and west, and Jisr al-Shugur, which we see so clearly in front of us to the north. Syrian troops were in the ultra-modern thermal electric station to the immediate south which – so the colonel said – had prevented him from using shells for fear of damaging the plant.
In pictures: Syria conflict
In pictures: Syria conflict
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Syrians carry children amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl on a street covered with dust following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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Syrians react as they stand amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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An injured Syrian man walks out from the rubble of a destroyed building following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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People stand on the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo
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Syrian residents stand amid the rubble of destroyed buildings
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A Syrian resident grasps a mattress amid rubble in the al-Firdous neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo
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A bullet-riddled parking sign stands amid debris in a deserted street leading into the old city of Homs
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A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas
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A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years
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Buses carrying Free Syrian Army fighters leaving Homs. Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a cease-fire deal with government forces. The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad's rule, earning it the nickname of "capital of the revolution"
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Syrian government forces hold up a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad (L) while others raise the national flag on top of a pole in the old city of Homs
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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad run through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing after their release by rebels. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria
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A Syrian woman and two children walk past heavily damaged buildings in the northern city of Aleppo
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A man carries a wounded girl following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Mowasalat neighborhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A wounded man sits as he is treated at a makeshift hospital following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Sakhour district of the northern city of Aleppo
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Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamic rebels said was an operation to strike Al-Sahaba checkpoint, which is considered a gateway to Al-Dayf valley, and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib province
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Men try to put out fire at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Civil Defence members try to put out fire
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Survivors react at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Residents queue as they wait to receive food aid distributed by the UNRWA at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus
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Belongings of Syrian rebels inside a chapel at Crac des Chevaliers, the world's best preserved medieval Crusader castle in Syria. The village was destroyed in fighting between the government and rebel forces while the castle, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, also has been damaged over the past two years
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Hosen Sabah, a 16-year-old student is comforted by his mother at a hospital in Damascus. Nosen was wounded by a mortar outside his school, while 14 other students were killed and over 80 wounded
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A Free Syrian Army fighter works on a locally made launcher before firing it towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Mork town
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Syrian policemen and citizens inspecting the site of a car bomb at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus. According to Syria's Arab News Agency (SANA), a car bomb explosion has gone off in the countryside of Damascus and initial information say there are casualties, where a car rigged with explosions was remotely detonated at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus during engineering units it was trying to dismantled it
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Opposition fighters carrying a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man helps a woman to make her way through debris following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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A Syrian man reacts as he carries the body of injured boy following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 33 civilians were killed in the attack
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Syrian rescue workers carry the body of a woman following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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Syrians gather at the site of reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
You approach the ancient Orontes from the Mediterranean across the hills from Alawite Qardaha, home and final resting place of Mr Assad’s father, Hafez. Towering mountains guard the passes into the mist-filled basin of the river with its curtains of wheat fields stretching east towards land long lost to the government.
But down in the valley, Syrian trucks and tank transporters hum along the highway and as we cross the green-scummed Orontes, Col Saleh’s army – and his retreating enemies – have left their tracks. There are the burnt-out open trucks so beloved of the Nusra militias, a tank chassis with its turret blown off, a street of burnt-out homes, looted by the Nusra men a few weeks ago, plastic chairs in the gardens, cheap concrete roofs collapsed over gardens of tortured pink and red roses.
“In this village, they massacred more than 100 men, women and children, Alawites,” one of Col Saleh’s men said. The towns around here are Alawite or Shia or in some cases Sunni, but Nusra – Sunnis themselves – evicted or killed the Sunni villagers, because they worked with the government. The fields smell of something rotten and plagues of mosquitoes settle around us whenever we leave our vehicle. On some of the burnt walls, you can still read the Nusra’s “Men of God” graffiti. Behind lies the field hospital where Jisr’s break-out soldiers and the civilians with them finally found sanctuary. “We were happy because of their courage,” Col Saleh’s colleague said of the rescued troops – which was one way of glossing a defeat.
But if the Syrian army can hold on here in the valley, which it intends to do, then Nusra might have been gorged, for now. It clearly paid a price when the colonel’s men stormed north in their attempt to reach Jisr al-Shugur. Behind the poplar trees and a gentle blue fishing lake, there are lines of multi-barrelled missile launchers, which means another battle to come.
“Syria used to be so beautiful,” one soldier lamented, leaning through the window of our vehicle. They probably said that once about the waters of the Somme or the Marne and every other soft place where the world suddenly changed and nations confronted powerful enemies.