Syrian rebels, civilians brace for long civil war
By Ben Hubbard
Before the civil war, Ramiz Moussa was a middle class civil servant who processed fines for littering, illegal construction and disturbing the peace in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
Now, the 40-year-old squats with other rebels in damaged, abandoned homes in this embattled town. He rarely sees his family and thinks of little beyond the next attack on government soldiers.
"We no longer count the days," he said, standing in a rubble-strewn alley, holding a rifle and two rocket-propelled grenades. "Today we're in a battle, but we can't remember when it started, much less the past battles. You could ask me what day it is, but I can't tell you."
A dark realisation is spreading across northern Syria that despite 20 months of violence and recent rebel gains, an end to the war to topple President Bashar Assad is nowhere in sight.
As a result, civilians and rebel fighters are digging in, building an infrastructure to secure rebel towns, care for the wounded and escalate the fight against Assad's forces.
Although incomplete and often hobbled by competition between factions, these efforts have produced a rebel force capable of victories nearly unimaginable months ago. And recent interviews in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo with more than a dozen rebels and civilian activists gave no sign that they would give up soon.
"At the start I never imagined it would last this long," said rebel field commander Abdulllah Qadi, 25. "We have been at it for 20 months and we could be at it for 20 more. All we can do is keep fighting."
Syria's uprising started with protests calling for political change in March 2011. Like many in the opposition, Qadi said the successful toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia gave him hope that Assad, too, would soon fall.
Instead, his regime launched a relentless crackdown, causing many to take up arms. The conflict escalated this year into a civil war with scores of rebel groups fighting Assad's military. Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed.
Syria's rebels have claimed a string of victories in recent weeks, storming military bases, boosting their armouries with looted munitions and overrunning a hydroelectric dam that powers a large swath of the country.
Fuelling these advances is greater organisation among rebel brigades. At least three major umbrella groups have formed to solicit private aid from abroad and shuttle arms and ammunition to brigades inside Syria.
"At first, the regime's presence in many places prevented us from bringing our forces together, but after we liberated some areas, we saw that we needed to unify the forces on the ground," said Gen. Ahmed al-Faj of the so-called Joint Command. The other groups are the Syria Liberation Front and the Military Councils of the Free Syrian Army.
In one striking example of the opposition's new capabilities, hundreds of rebels recently stormed the base of the Syrian army's 46th Regiment near Aleppo after a coordinated two-month siege, taking away tanks, armoured vehicles and truckloads of munitions they plan to use against Assad's forces.
But rebel advances remain limited. While they control a strip of territory along the Turkish border and have carved out pockets near Damascus and in the sparsely populated eastern provinces, much of the country remains beyond their reach. Even in Idlib, a centre of rebel activity, the army still has four major towns and two bases, plus a half-dozen checkpoints to prevent rebel expansion to the west and south.
The rebels also remain largely helpless against the regime's air power, whose daily air raids often kill civilians. Many fighters are bitter that the US and others have not intervened to stop Assad's air force as they did in Libya against Moammar Gadhafi last year.
"We saw in Libya the aid that the US and NATO gave and how quickly the battle went," said fighter Abdullah Biram. "So why don't they come here? Don't they see all the people dying?"
One recent evening, a helicopter dropped a bomb on the village of Maaret al-Naasan in Idlib. Moments later, Bilal Haidar emerged from the stairwell he was hiding under to find that his parents, six of his siblings, his sister-in-law and three neighbours were killed when their houses collapsed.
"I have no one left," he said the next day, standing in the rubble of his former home. "My whole family is gone."
Civilian leaders have scrambled to fill the void left by the government's withdrawal, setting up hospitals with operating rooms and security brigades to prevent crime.
A half-dozen Idlib towns have also set up Islamic courts under the jurisdiction of a High Judicial Council, said Salah Hablas, a Muslim cleric involved in the effort.
When asked what the most common crimes were, he read off the names of a dozen people, all wanted on suspicion of spying for the regime.
Hablas, sporting a long gray beard, dark sunglasses and a black track suit, said the courts apply a mix of Syrian and Islamic law and have sentenced one person to death. While that sentence has yet to be carried out, others have.
"If there a punishment for anyone, whether whipping or anything else, it is carried out in the public square," he said.
The complete mobilisation for war is clear in Harem, a scenic town rich with orange and persimmon groves, built around an imposing, hilltop castle near the Turkish border.
After months of clashes, rebels managed to besiege the remaining troops inside the castle. They try daily to force them out.
Sniper fire, artillery blasts and near-daily government airstrikes have sent most residents fleeing through rubble-strewn streets. Rebels squat in abandoned homes, smashing holes in walls to create passages to the front line. Between clashes, they make tea on wood fires or pick fruit, much of it about to rot because farmers can't harvest it.
Captured regime soldiers are held in a former police station and medics treat the wounded in a farmhouse before they return to battle or are driven to hospitals.
Rows of fresh graves line a grassy, tree-covered compound abutting the barbed wire of the Turkish border.
Mohammed Quweiri, 63, pointed to the grave of his son, killed by a sniper. Next to him lay a school principal and a mosque preacher, also slain by snipers, and a rebel commander who died in an airstrike that also killed 15 others, Quweiri said.
Four graves nearby held the remains of some of the 10 people killed in another airstrike near the town's mosque.
Sitting in the dirt nearby, Sobhia Qarboulad, 55, said her brother Mohammed was among the dead. When the first missile hit near their house, he rushed to help the wounded. A second missile hit soon after and he never came back.
Since then, the family has been living in the abandoned bakery where her brother once worked. When they hear a fighter jet, they collect the children and flee to the olive groves, she said, where no roof can collapse on their heads.
"We have no money to leave and no place to go," she said. "Only God can provide protection."
As she spoke, rebels crowded around the bodies of two fighters killed that day while an old man dug a new grave.