The short message screeched over a walkie-talkie, prompting the half a dozen rebels in the room who had been lounging on flat mattresses and drinking tea to jump to their feet, grab their guns and run out of the door. It was almost 7:30 p.m. Ten men in civilian garb had just sneaked out of the Syrian army’s Zahlanee checkpoint some 500 m away from the rebel position, just across an olive grove, and were now moving toward a cave on the outskirts of the grove. The cave had been a rebel position at one point. “They told them not to be late,” the voice over the walkie-talkie said, relaying what he had heard from a transmitter set to intercept Syrian Army communications, “so they’re not defectors. They’re not trying to defect. They’re planning something, but what I don’t know.”
A rebel named Ahmad picked up a BKC machine gun, while others grabbed Kalashnikov rifles. Another rebel, Abu Sammy, manned the 14.5-mm antiaircraft gun mounted on the back of a navy blue pickup truck as his colleagues in the Farouq Brigade bundled into the back. It sped a short distance down a narrow deserted path closer to the Zahlanee checkpoint, one of two key loyalist positions that protect the larger, fortified Wadi Deif military base. (The other is called the Hamidiyeh.) The base is one of the last remaining Syrian military outposts in the vast northern province of Idlib. The rebels have been trying to overrun it since at least October as they try to wrest full control of Idlib. So far, Syria’s rebel forces have not managed to gain full control of any of the country’s 14 provinces.
Dusk was falling and it was raining as the men dismounted and spread out near an abandoned, partially destroyed house near the olive grove. Some of them crouched near herbs planted in rusting 18-L tins of vegetable oil lined along the patio as the pickup truck maneuvered into position. Abu Sammy fired a volley of shots toward the government soldiers before retreating out of sight, behind the damaged house.
The army’s response was swift: the orange glow of three rounds from what the rebels said was a ZSU-23-4, or Shilka antiaircraft gun, flew over the house, landing in a nearby field. “You pigs!” Ahmad said. Four more bursts from the Shilka whizzed overhead. A few sniper shots crackled. The rebels responded with the 14.5-mm, firing it each time from a different position along the short graveled path. The back and forth continued for half an hour.
“How many suffocated?” Ahmad said into a walkie-talkie, asking his colleague who was listening to the radio chatter of the troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. (Enemy dead are never “martyred,” they are often “killed” but sometimes described by the less-dignified “suffocated.”)
“They’re calling for the doctor, there are eight wounded,” came the reply.
“Praise be to God. That’s great.”
The night’s tally among the government soldiers was relatively high: five dead, three wounded, according to their radio chatter. It was a small victory for these rebels, who have been holding the line in the devastated, deserted village of Marshamsheh, around the Zahlanee checkpoint, since October. But in the wider war for control of the Wadi Deif base and Idlib province, they are on the back foot.
“Battles are about ebb and flow,” says Hajj Zaki, the Farouq’s commander there. “We don’t want to look at the glass as half-empty.”
On Feb. 6, a coordinated rebel offensive codenamed Marakit il Bina il Marsoos, or the Battle of Reinforced Structures, was unleashed to open all the remaining fronts in Idlib province at around the same time — Wadi Deif, the Karmid checkpoint, the Mastoomeh checkpoint, the Abu Duhoor military airport and the smaller checkpoints associated with these outposts. The plan was then to pivot to take on the regime forces in the provincial capital of Idlib city, and the city of Jisr al-Shughour, the two key urban areas in the province still under the control of forces loyal to Assad.
The attack was the rebels’ second major attempt to snatch the positions and take control of Idlib. But like the first offensive in mid-October, it also soon fizzled.
The rebels’ struggle for Idlib is a microcosm of the battles being played out elsewhere in this more than two-year conflict that has left at least 80,000 people dead and millions more displaced. Although vast swaths of the country, especially across the north, have fallen out of Assad’s control, they are still within the reach of his artillery and warplanes. Government forces appear to be focusing on regaining or maintaining control of key roads and towns near strategic highways, rather than trying to win back all of the lost territory, and on consolidating their hold in the towns and cities they still control. Rebel commanders, meanwhile, are trying to learn the lessons of why their ambitious, province-wide offensive essentially failed.
The reasons are simple and have been replicated on many a battlefield across Syria in this vastly asymmetrical war, yet they also highlight the complexity of the conflict — the difficulty of uniting rebel ranks, the inconsistency of rebel supplies of weapons and ammunition, and the creativity of Syrian army tactics.
“We did what we could with what we had,” says Colonel Afif Suleiman, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Idlib Revolutionary Military Council, from his office in a school in southern Idlib. “Weak means gave us weak results.”