Welcome to Free Syria, where the ammunition is scarce and roving packs of wild dogs subsist on corpses.
JABAL AL–ZAWIYA, Syria — Majid al-Khalaf is watching pictures on his cell phone. Photos of his father appear on the screen, framed in flowers and hearts. The man is living, and smiling. On the next video, though, it is hard to recognize him: He lies on a blanket, with only his feet and his face, swollen and dirty, remaining. The rest of his body is a bloodied skeleton.
Abdullah al-Khalaf, who died at age 41, was a good rebel sniper. Two months ago, he was betrayed by one of his cousins. The army captured him, killed him, and dumped his body in the olive groves, where it was eaten by dogs. At that time, the practice was so common that dogs had started to proliferate. Today, they have turned on the living, moving in packs outside the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, a cluster of 33 villages in the northern governorate of Idlib. Villagers have been forced to hunt them down in order to cull their numbers.
Behind the wheel of his Honda, Mahmoud al-Khalaf, a cousin of Abdullah, stares at the lightless night of the town of Nayrab (Mahmoud’s first name has been changed for security reasons). Driving south at 60 miles per hour on the back roads of the Idlib countryside, wrecking a little bit more the car he brought all the way from Britain, he smokes his Gauloises Blondes. Village after village, he opens the windows and turns up the volume of a revolutionary song calling for the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The song signals his presence and political loyalties. Caught in the lights of the car, people with bright eyes wander in the electricity-less streets to buy their bread, and disappear in a cloud of dust. At times, Khalaf stops the car engine and steps out to discuss the safest route to take with the man leading the convoy. Sometimes, they would send a scout on a motorbike ahead and follow behind, carefully and silently, all lights out, for endless minutes. Three-and-a-half hours after leaving Atmeh, near the Turkish border, he finally reaches his hometown: Ibleen, a village of roughly 5,000 people in the northwest of Jabal al-Zawiya. He avoided five army checkpoints along the way.
As a no-holds-barred battle rages to the east in the city of Aleppo, the pulse of the Syrian insurrection can be taken in Jabal al-Zawiya. This complex region of hills covered in olive groves and plains entwined with narrow roads of asphalt or dirt is the homeland of Hussein Harmoush, the first officer to publicly defect in 2011, and of Riad al-Asaad, the leading figure of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Here, the insurrection is deeply rooted in the social fabric: The war these men are waging is always present, and its path is inseparable from their identities.
The FSA’s lack of formal hierarchy appears to be an asset here, as it allows the citizens of the region to organize the insurgency locally and tailor their military response to their environment. Although the rebels in Jabal al-Zawiya recognize a general leadership above them — and though they place themselves under the FSA’s umbrella — these semiautonomous groups of fighters are organized along village and family lines. That gives them several advantages: They have natural intelligence-gathering networks, and they know the terrain like the palms of their hands, having relied on back roads for supplies and secret meetings for many months. These assets, coupled with basic military skills, have allowed them to drive a far superior foe out of the towns.
Now, Khalaf needs to draw on that network to join the battle. Later that night, after he arrives in Ibleen, five young men sit with him in a small room isolated from the family’s house. The glass on the door was broken by the army months ago. The fan on the ceiling is slowly balancing the light bulb, and the shadows are moving. One of the men has brought a "56" — a Type 56, a Chinese-made Kalashnikov knockoff.
Khalaf wants to buy a gun, and he wants it quickly. He has to go fight in the north, where he recently integrated into a group of insurgents whose commander is an acquaintance from Jabal al-Zawiya. His cousins are here to help with the arms deal. This "56" has a particular importance for him: It was captured 40 days ago from the army that had been occupying the village since Dec. 17.
Soon, the rifle is broken open, and Khalaf inspects its guts. "It was clean, but it was not as good as a Russian one," he explained later, pointing out that the latter would have "diamonds" in the cannon.
Syria’s 19-month uprising has bred a set of popular mythologies into the minds of the men, who have only a hands-on knowledge of weapons. And these myths are now important elements in the arms market. The "diamonds" would make a rifle worth at least $2,000 — a price an insurgent could not easily afford. One of Khalaf’s cousins had brought a "German" to the meeting — actually, an Md.65, a Romanian AK variant — that was worth only $1,000. The lesser price was because it did not have the folding bayonet of the "56," a completely useless accessory in the Syrian conflict. The "German," however, was not for sale.
"Sixty percent of our weapons are from the army," explains Khalaf. "The rest is given to us by other countries or bought from smugglers. Sometimes we also buy from friendly elements in the army. But since they keep a pretty tight inventory of their arsenal, we cannot buy the guns one by one. We have to buy the whole storage."
Weapons from past wars have also filtered into Syria. Presenting a "NATO," a Belgian-made FAL rifle, Khalaf says, "These ones are given to us by Libya. They are worth $2,000 apiece, or more." The "NATO" comes with an ammunition problem: It is sold with only 100 cartridges per rifle, and the 7.62-by-51 mm rounds are not readily available to the insurgents. To resupply, a fighter would have to pay $3 per cartridge. As a result, these rifles quickly become useless.
About 3,500 residents of Ibleen are members of the Khalaf clan. The rest are divided among four smaller families. The clan’s members have been drawn closer by the war: They share their own history, their own tragedies, and their own knowledge, hierarchy, and dynamics.
Khalaf and some of his cousins are members of the Ahrar Ibleen brigade: "The Free Men of Ibleen." The group, which numbers 108 men, is part of the broader fighting network under the command of Jamal Marouf, whose "Martyrs of Syria" are active in the whole Jabal al-Zawiya and beyond. They are carpenters, builders, farmers, pastors, shop owners. For most of them, buying a decent rifle would represent about 15 months of work. For those who stay in Jabal al-Zawiya to fight, a rifle might come free of charge — captured from a Syrian soldier. But Khalaf has only a week before he has to go back north.
By exploiting their connection to the region and knowledge of the terrain, the rebels have managed to carve out an area outside Assad’s control in Jabal al-Zawiya.
"After nine months of occupation, the city of Kafr Nabl was liberated on the 10th of August 2012. The people of Ibleen went there to fight," explained Khalaf. The battle lasted five days and left deep scars in the neighboring town, which is located a short drive south of Ibleen.
After losing the battle of Kafr Nabl, the army retreated from the towns of Jabal al-Zawiya. The rebels’ victory also accelerated a strategic shift, one in which the regime concentrated its forces on vital points such as cities, airports, and highways, rather than attempting to occupy the entire region. Assad’s military still controls portions of the highway between Damascus and Aleppo, and it makes its presence known through checkpoints on main roads and by shelling the towns randomly.
However, it has not risked another engagement in an urban area. The insurgents are defiant: "We have nothing, says Khalaf, "but a purpose. We fight for freedom, for dignity. We are not afraid of losing our lives."
Day and night, the shelling marks the hours in Ibleen. It wakes up the family, silences the discussion after dinner, announces supper, and keeps the fighters awake late at night when they are sipping tea. From the roof of their house, the men can spot a Mi-24 helicopter gunship high in the sky during the day. The helicopter roams the area for half an hour as the explosions echo and smoke rises on the horizon. It was met with little to no anti-aircraft fire.
Fifteen minutes of silence later, the news reaches Ibleen: Kansafra, about six miles south, has been shelled. "The bakery and 10 houses were hit. Seven dead. Ten wounded," a man says. "We are getting used to it."
Khalaf still needs a gun, and time before he has to return north is growing short. As he ventures to neighboring towns and meets with other insurgents, looking for a weapon he can afford, he still cannot forget this war. His car constantly vibrates as it passes over the marks on the road left by the tracks of Assad’s tanks. Endless discussions — soaked in tea, entangled with village rumors, planned operations, and smoked cigarettes — lead nowhere. He will have to travel even farther, and take more risks, to find what he is looking for.
Dispirited, he goes the next morning to the house of his cousin Mustafa al-Khalaf, the brother of Abdullah al-Khalaf, the late father of Majid. The two men share a meal — "not to die hungry," they say — and set out to the village of Kanis, about 18 miles north from Ibleen, to meet an arms dealer. The men are still talking when they pass Deir Sounbol, the hometown of Marouf. They arm their rifles and fall silent as they approach an army position on the highway, muttering "God is great" as explosions rumble in the distance.
The discussions in Kanis last for more than four hours. In his villa, a man identified as Abu Ahmed — who is said to obtain his weapons from Iraq, among other countries — goes through a list of telephone numbers in a thick agenda while groups of men enter, examine weapons, pay, and leave. "Where are the missiles?" an insurgent asks, referring to surface-to-air weapon systems. He does not receive an answer. Later, he and his comrades leave with two 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine guns, for which they paid $8,000 apiece. In another room, Abu Ahmed suggests a Russian-made Kalashnikov, but Khalaf cannot pay the $2,500 price tag.
There are no more discussions in the car on the road back to Ibleen. Just a subtle vibration. The cousin and the brother of Abdullah al-Khalaf are staring at the rising smoke on the horizon. They could only afford three boxes of 12-gauge shotgun shells. To hunt the dogs.