Clouds hang oppressively low over the Syrian army’s front-line mountain-top in the far north of Syria.
Rain has only just replaced snow, turning this heavily protected fortress into a swamp of mud and stagnant ponds where soldiers man their lookout posts with the wind in their faces, their elderly T-55 tanks – the old Warsaw Pact battlehorses of the 1950s – dripping under the showers, their tracks in the mud, used now only as artillery pieces. They are “rubbish tanks” – debeba khurda – I say to Colonel Mohamed, commander of the Syrian army’s Special Forces unit across this bleak landscape, and he grins at me. “We use them for static defence,” he says frankly. ‘They do not move.’”
Before the war – or “the crisis” as President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers are constrained to call it – Jebel al-Kawaniah was a television transmission station. But when the anti-government rebels captured it, they blew up the towers, cut down the forest of fir trees around it to create a free-fire zone and built ramparts of earth to protect them from government gunfire. The Syrian army fought their way back up the hillsides last October, through the village of Qastal Maaf – which now lies pancaked and broken on the old road to the Turkish border at Kassab – and stormed on to the plateau which is now their front line.
On their maps, the Syrian army codenamed “Kawaniah Mountain” according to their own military co-ordinates. It became “Point 45” – Point 40 lies east through the mountain gloom – and they spread their troops in tents under the trees of two neighbouring hills. I climb on to one of the T-55s and can see them through the downpour. There are dull explosions across the valley and the occasional “pop” of small arms fire and, rather disconcertingly, Col Mohamed points out that the nearest forest is still in the hands of his enemies, scarcely 800 metres away. The soldier sitting in the tank turret with a heavy machine-gun doesn’t take his eyes off the trees.
It is always an eerie experience to sit among Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers. These are the “bad guys” of the regime, according to the rest of the world – although in truth the country’s secret police deserve that title – and I’m well aware that these men have been told that a Western journalist is coming to their dug-outs and basement headquarters. They ask me to use only their first names for fear that their families may be killed; they allow me to take any photographs I wish, but not to picture their faces – a rule that the rebels sometimes ask of journalists for the same reason – but every soldier and officer to whom I spoke, including a Brigadier General, gave their full names and IDs to me.
Such access to the Syrian army was almost unimaginable just a few months ago and there are good reasons why. The army believe they are at last winning back ground from the Free Syrian Army and the al-Nusra Islamist fighters and the various al-Qa’ida satellites that now rule much of the Syrian countryside. From Point 45 they are scarcely a mile and a half from the Turkish frontier and intend to take the ground in between. Outside Damascus they have battled their way bloodily into two rebel-held suburbs. While I was prowling through the mountaintop positions, the rebels were in danger of losing the town of Qusayr outside Homs amid opposition accusations of the widespread killing of civilians. The main road from Damascus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast has been reopened by the army. And the line troops I met at Point 45 were a different breed of men from those soldiers who became corrupted after 29 years of semi-occupation in Lebanon, who fell back to Syria without a war to fight in 2005, the discipline of the soldiers around Damascus a joke rather than a threat to anyone. Bashar’s Special Forces now appear confident, ruthless, politically motivated, a danger to their enemies, their uniforms smart, their weapons clean. Syrians have long grown used to the claims by Israel – inevitably followed by the Washington echo machine – that chemical weapons have been used by Bashar’s forces; as an intelligence officer remarked caustically in Damascus: “Why should we use chemical weapons when our Mig aircraft and their bombs cause infinitely more destruction?” The soldiers up at Point 45 admitted the defections to the Free Syrian Army, the huge losses of their own men – inevitably referred to as “martyrs” – and made no secret of their own body counts for battles lost and won.
Their last “martyr” at Point 45 was shot by a rebel sniper two weeks ago, 22 year-old Special Forces Private Kamal Aboud from Homs. He at least died as a soldier. Colonel Mohamed spoke ruefully of the troopers on family leave who, he said, were executed with knives when they entered enemy territory. I remind myself that the UN is bringing war crimes charges against this army and I remind Colonel Mohamed – who has four bullet wounds in his arms to show that he leads his soldiers from the front, not from a bunker – that his soldiers were surely meant to be liberating the Golan Heights from Israel. Israel is to the south, I say, and here he is fighting his way north towards Turkey. Why?
“I know, but we are fighting Israel. I joined the army to fight Israel. And now I am fighting Israel’s tools. And the tools of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, so in this way we are fighting for Golan. This is a conspiracy and the West is helping the foreign terrorists who arrived in Syria, the same terrorists you are trying to kill in Mali.” I have heard this before, of course. The “moamarer”, the conspiracy, sits beside me at all interviews in Syria. But the colonel admits that the two Syrian T-55s which fire shells at Point 45 every morning – the very same vintage war-carts as his own tanks – are sets of twins, that his enemies have taken their artillery from the government army and that his opponents include men from Bashar al-Assad’s original army.
On the road to Qastel Maaf, a general tells me that on the highway to the Turkish border, the army have just killed 10 Saudis, two Egyptians and a Tunisian – I am shown no papers to prove this – but the soldiers at Point 45 produce for me three handset radios they have captured from their enemies. One is marked “HXT Commercial Terminal”, the other two are made by Hongda and the instructions are in Turkish. I ask them if they listen to the rebel communications. “Yes, but we don’t understand them,” a major says. “They are speaking in Turkish and we don’t understand Turkish.” So are they Turks or Turkmen Syrians from the villages to the east? The soldiers shrug. They say they have also heard Arabic voices speaking with Libyan and Yemeni accents. And given that the great and the good of Nato are now obsessed with “foreign jihadis” in Syria, I suspect these Syrian soldiers may well be telling the truth.
The laneways of this beautiful northern countryside conceal the viciousness of the fighting. Clusters of red and white roses smother the walls of abandoned homes. A few men tend the mass of orange orchards that glow around us, a woman combs her long hair on a roof. The lake of Balloran glistens in the spring sunshine between mountains still topped with a powder of snow. It reminds me, chillingly, of Bosnia. For several miles the villages are still occupied, a Christian Greek Orthodox township of 10 families with a church dedicated to the appearance of the Virgin to a woman called Salma; a Muslim Alawite village, then a Muslim Sunni village close to the front lines but still co-existing; a ghost of the old secular, non-sectarian Syria which both sides promise – with ever decreasing credibility – will return once the war is over.
Then I am in a smashed village called Beit Fares where hundreds of Syrian soldiers can be seen patrolling the surrounding forests, and another general fishes into his pocket and produces an army mobile phone video of dead fighters. “All are foreign,” he says. I watch closely as the camera lingers over bearded faces, some contorted in fear, others in the dreamless sleep of death. They have been heaped together. And, most sinister of all, I observe a military boot which descends twice on the heads of the dead men. On the wall of the dugout, someone has written: “We are soldiers of Assad – to hell with you dogs of the armed groups of Jabel al-Aswad and Beit Shrouk.”
These are the names of a string of tiny villages still in rebel hands – you can see the roofs of their houses from Point 45 – and Col Mohamed, a 45-year-old veteran of the Lebanese war between 1993 and 1995, lists the others: Khadra, Jebel Saouda, Zahiyeh, al-Kabir, Rabia… Their fate awaits them. When I ask the soldiers how many prisoners they took in their battles, they say “None” with a loud voice. What, I ask, even when they claim to have killed 700 “terrorists” in one engagement? “None,” they reply again.
Opposite a bullet-riddled school building is a pulverised house. “A local terrorist leader died there with all his men,” the colonel states. “They did not surrender.”
I doubt if they had the chance. But at Beit Fares, some rebels did escape earlier this year, along – so says General Wasif from Latakia – with their own local leader, a Syrian businessman. We clump into the man’s ruined villa on the hills of this abandoned Turkmen village – the inhabitants are now in Turkish refugee camps, the general tells me – and it seems that the businessman was wealthy. The villa is surrounded by irrigated orchards of lemon and pistachio and fig trees. There is a basketball court, an empty swimming pool, children’s swings, a broken marble fountain – in which there are still Turkish-labelled tins of stuffed vine leaves – and marble-walled living rooms and kitchens and a delicate plaque in Arabic above the front door saying: “God Bless This House.” It seems He did not.
I pluck some figs from the absentee businessman’s orchard. The soldiers do the same. But they taste sharp and too sour and the soldiers spit them out, preferring the oranges that hang by the roadside. General Fawaz is talking to a colleague and lifts up an exploded rocket for inspection. It is locally manufactured, the welding unprofessional – but identical to all the Qassam missiles which the Palestinian Hamas movement fires into Israel from the Gaza Strip. “Someone from Palestine told the terrorists how to make this,” General Fawaz says. Colonel Mohamed remarks quietly that when they stormed into the village, they found cars and trucks with Turkish military plates – but no Turkish soldiers.
There is an odd relationship with Turkey up here. Recep Tayyip Erdogan may condemn Assad but the nearest Turkish frontier station a mile and a half away stays open, the only border post still linking Turkey and government-controlled Syrian territory. One of the officers refers to an old story about the Umayyad Caliph Muawiya who said that he kept a thin piece of his own hair “to connect me to my enemies”. “The Turks have left this one frontier open with us,” the officer says, “so as not to cut the hair of Muawiya.” He is not smiling and I understand what he is saying. The Turks still want to maintain a physical connection with the Assad regime. Erdogan cannot be certain that Bashar al-Assad will lose this war.
Many of the soldiers show their wounds; more valuable to them, I suspect, than medals or badges of rank. Besides, the officers have already removed their gold insignia on the front lines – unlike Admiral Nelson, they do not wish to be picked off by the rebels’ early morning snipers. Dawn seems to be the killing time. On a roadway, a second lieutenant shows me his own wounds. There is a bullet’s entry below his left ear. On the other side of his head, a cruel purple scar runs upwards towards his right ear. He was shot right through the neck and survived. He was lucky.
So were the Special Forces soldiers who patrolled towards a hidden land-mine, an IED in Western parlance. A young Syrian explosives ordnance officer in Qastal Maaf shows me the two iron-cased shells that were buried under the road. One of them is almost too heavy for me to lift. The fuse is labeled in Turkish. An antenna connected to the explosives was strung from the top of an electricity pole for a line-of-sight rebel bomber to detonate. A technical mine-detector – “all our equipment is Russian,” the soldiers boasted – alerted the patrol to the explosives before the soldiers walked over them.
But death hovers over the Syrian army, just as it haunts their enemies. The airport at Latakia is now a place of permanent lamentation. No sooner do I arrive than I find families crying and tearing their faces in front of the terminal, waiting for the bodies of their soldier sons and brothers and husbands, Christians for the most part but Muslims too, for the Mediterranean coast is the heartland of Christians and Shia Alawites and a minority of Sunni Muslims. One Christian woman is restrained by an old man as she tries to lie down on the road, tears streaming down her face. A truck by the departure hall is piled with wreaths.
A general in charge of the army’s bereaved families tells me that the airport is too small for this mass mourning. “The helicopters bring our dead here from all over northern Syria,” he says. “We have to look after all these families and find them housing, but sometimes I go to homes to tell them of the death of a son and find that they have already lost three other sons as martyrs. It is too much.” Forget Private Ryan. I see beside the control tower a wounded soldier hobbling along on one foot, a bandage partly covering his face, his arm around a comrade as he limps towards the terminal.
Military statistics I was shown suggest that 1,900 soldiers from Latakia have been killed in this awful war, another 1,500 from Tartus. But you must add up the statistics of the Alawite and Christian mixed villages in the hills above Latakia to understand the individual cost. In Hayalin, for example, the village of 2,000 souls has lost 22 soldiers with another 16 listed as missing. In real terms that’s 38 dead. Many were killed in Jisr al-Shughur back in June of 2011 when the Syrian army lost 89 dead in a rebel ambush. A villager called Fouad explains that there was one survivor who came from a neighbouring village. “I telephoned him to ask what happened to the other men,” he said. “He said: ‘I don’t know because they cut out my eyes.’ He said that someone led him away and he thought he would be executed but found himself in an ambulance and was taken to hospital in Latakia.” One of the Jisr al-Shughur dead was returned to Hayalin, but relatives found that his coffin contained only his legs. “The latest martyr from Hayalin was killed only two days ago,” Fouad told me. “He was a soldier called Ali Hassan. He had just got married. They couldn’t even return his body.”
The 24 Syrian helicopter gunships that throb on the apron beyond the terminal project the power of the government’s hardware. But soldiers tell their own stories of fear and intimidation. That rebel forces threaten the families of government soldiers is a long-established fact. But one private told me bleakly of how his elder brother was ordered to persuade him to desert the army. “When I refused, they broke my brother’s legs,” he said. When I asked if others had shared this experience, an 18-year old private was brought to me. The officers offered to leave the room when I spoke to him.
He was an intelligent young man but his story was told simply and untutored. His was no set propaganda speech. “I come from Idlib Province and they came to my father and said they needed me there,” he said. “But my father refused and said, ‘If you want my son, go and bring him here – and if you do, you will not find me here to greet him.’ Then my father sent most of his family to Lebanon. My father and mother are still there and they are still being threatened.” I tell the officers later that I do not believe every Syrian defector left because of threats to his family, that some soldiers must have profoundly disagreed with the regime. They agree but insist that the army remains strong.
Colonel Mohamed, who mixes military strategy with politics, says he regards the foreign “plot” against Syria as a repeat version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of the First World War, when Britain and France secretly decided to divide up the Middle East – including Syria – between them. “Now they want to do the same,” he says. “Britain and France want to give weapons to the terrorists to divide us, but we want to have a united Syria in which all our people live together, democratically, caring not about their religion but living peacefully…” And then came the crunch. “…under the leadership of our champion Dr Bashar al-Assad.”
But it is not that simple. The word “democracy” and the name of Assad do not blend very well in much of Syria. And I rather think that the soldiers of what is officially called the Syrian Arab Army are fighting for Syria rather than Assad. But fighting they are and maybe, for now, they are winning an unwinnable war. At Beit Fares, I peak over the parapet once more and the mist is rising off the mountains. This could be Bosnia. The country is breathtaking, the grey-green hills rolling into blue velvet mountains. A little heaven. But the fruits along this front line are bitter indeed.