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.”
The first step in the multipronged offensive, which took 50 days to prepare according to Suleiman, was to effectively cut the M5 highway at Heesh, a town about 17 km from Wadi Deif. The M5 is a key land supply route used by the Syrian army and is the main artery linking the capital Damascus to the central cities of Homs, Hama and through Idlib further north to Aleppo.
Although stretches of the road were already partially destroyed (usually blown up) by the rebels and rendered impassable, TIME saw rebel preparations in late January to completely cut the M5, and visited sites a few hundred meters from the highway where trenches were being dug to provide cover for rebels to get as close as possible to several stretches of the highway to destroy them. The aim was to maintain and strengthen a months-long siege (which was not airtight at that point) on Wadi Deif and its associated checkpoints.
At first the plan went well, and Assad’s opponents notched up several key wins. The road around Heesh was mined while other stretches were blown up in early February, choking supplies to government troops in Wadi Deif and its associated outposts who had to rely more heavily on air drops from helicopters. Army reinforcements from the south in the form of several columns of tanks as well as convoys of armored vehicles ferrying ammunition were intercepted on the road by rebels and destroyed. The fight around Wadi Deif’s two main defenses, the Zahlanee checkpoint near the village of Marshamsheh and the large Hamidiyeh outpost near the city of Maaret al-Numan, ignited. There were defections, including those of a major and other officers from Wadi Deif. A siege on a nearby military airport of Abu Duhoor was also tightened.
And then, on the night of April 13 things changed — largely because of an act of subterfuge from government soldiers. The rebels’ fortunes turned at Sahyan, a small town south of the town of Babuleen, not far from Heesh, according to several rebel commanders in the area as well as the military council’s Suleiman. The eastern half of Sahyan was in rebel hands, the western in the regime’s. Government soldiers, under cover of darkness, surrounded eastern Sahyan. They had changed out of their uniforms and had dressed into the mismatched civilian and military garb of many rebel fighters, rebel commanders tell TIME. Some even wore the black headbands proclaiming “There is no God but God” that some rebels wear. “The revolutionaries saw them, and thought they were of them, another group,” Suleiman says. “They were all gunned down, everybody in eastern Sahyan was killed, some 40 or 50 men.” In the Syrian war, the loss of that many fighters in one place represents a significant blow to any rebel unit.
The disguised loyalists continued up the road toward Babuleen, a small rebel-held town just a few kilometers from Heesh, where they waited until dawn, before setting up a similar ambush. “All told we lost between 100 to 107 martyrs,” Suleiman says. “I don’t know how many died from the army, but the fight continued for three or four hours.”
By April 15, the army had taken control of Babuleen, and more crucially, had retaken the road around Heesh, breaking the siege on Wadi Deif and allowing reinforcements to reach Zahlanee, Hamidiyeh and other smaller checkpoints. (The eastern part of Heesh is now inaccessible to the rebels. Their trenches are exposed to newly established nearby army positions that are on higher ground.)
The rebels were reeling, and rather than close ranks and recalibrate, they started blaming each other, including the units that were tasked with securing the eastern part of Sahyan for their perceived laxness. The lack of unity among the ranks of Syrian rebels as a whole has long been a problem that stretches beyond this battle, beyond Idlib and is, in fact, a fundamental challenge to opposition forces.
Their unity, always tenuous, was forged ahead of the battle by a council of religious scholars headed by a cleric from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group, which has affirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda. The council gathered the dozens of various commanders in the area and extracted a pledge of allegiance from each that he would work under its direction, and with his fellow commanders. The accord doesn’t seem to have lasted long.
“The word of religious scholars carries weight with respect to the book and the Sunnah [teachings of the Prophet Muhammad], but they are not able to control the battalions and the large groups,” says the Farouq’s Hajj Zaki. The accord started to fracture within weeks. “It reached a point where their word was no longer heeded on the battlefield.”
The Jabhat al-Nusra sheik heading the council denied that any of the commanders had broken their pledge to coordinate their efforts. “Everybody worked according to his means,” he said, seated on a green mat in the vestibule of his mosque in southern Idlib. Several black Jabhat al-Nusra flags, printed both on cloth and paper, were taped to its walls, alongside large maps of the provinces of Idlib, Hama and Damascus. The sheik would not be drawn on the reasons why the supposedly coordinated battle failed to achieve its aims. “Victory comes from God,” he kept repeating, adding that the rebels must be patient.
Abu Akram, a rebel commander in the city of Maaret al-Numan from the Islamist Suqoor al-Sham brigades who was part of an operations team planning the battle, was a little clearer about the disputes: “The main reason was the lack of supplies, and we started blaming each other and saying ‘so-and-so has more than me, you pledged to work, why aren’t you?’ until it reached the point that Ahrar al-Sham wouldn’t work with the Martyrs of Syria [brigade], and the Martyrs of Syria wouldn’t work except with so-and-so. So we had to end the battle, and plan for a new one.”
The battle — Marakit il Bina il Marsoos — was ended shortly after the success of the government soldiers’ subterfuge in Sahyan, which broke the siege on Wadi Deif and its defenses. Since then, there have been several other smaller offensives against government positions with names like One Body and Repelling the Enemy, but they all failed to dislodge government forces. A new offensive, Retaliation of Banias, is currently under way and focusing on the Karmid checkpoint, a large government outpost from which troops regularly shell surrounding villages in southern Idlib, and the Abu Duhoor military airport, one of the last military airports still in government hands in the area.
Defections around Wadi Deif have decreased since the failed offensive, commanders say, and some lessons learned — about the reliability of certain groups, the fickleness of weapons suppliers, the lack of strategic planning of some commanders — have been noted. “If a commander suggests a plan and it is a failure and illogical, we won’t rely on him again,” says Abu Akram. Other lessons, especially about forging rebel unity, have not been applied. “We talk about Farouq, Suqoor, Martyrs of Syria, all of them are respected, but we are getting caught up in these names and this is affecting things on the ground,” says Hajj Zaki, the Farouq Brigade’s commander along the Zahlanee front. “If we don’t eliminate the names, we cannot learn to be organized, and that’s the truth, even if it hurts.”
Abu Akram, meanwhile, is taking a long-term view of the fight. After Marakit il Bina il Marsoos, the supposedly coordinated battle to wrest control of the province, “the army is as it was, and we are as we were,” he says from his small outpost in the city of Maaret al-Numan. He points to two teenagers in military camouflage seated in the room. “Look, see them, we are preparing them, training them for this fight, so that no matter how long our revolution continues, we are ready.” He points to another of his men: “This young man is now 18,” he says. “When the revolution started two years ago, he was a boy. Now, he mans a Shilka. This is a long fight.”