“And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges, defective in their natures, grow to wildness, even so our houses and ourselves and children have lost, or do not learn for want of time, the sciences that should become our country, but grow like savages – as soldiers will — that nothing do but meditate on blood — to swearing, stern looks, diffused attire, and everything that seems unnatural.” (Shakespeare, Henry V).
I remember the sound of Muslim prayer chanted in the morning by FSA fighters at their headquarters in Binnish, Idleb Province, before they set out for their day of making war. AK-47s and RPG-7s were stacked up against the wall, and there were rumors that the army would be coming into town any day.
Bashar Assad’s troops and armor were deployed on the main highway and out in the surrounding countryside. They were laying siege to Homs at the time, and a trickle of refugees had made it northwards, telling stories of massacres. It was thought that Idleb would be next.
That was in February of this year. I had entered Syria over the mountains with a smugglers’ convoy running weaponry and supplies for the FSA in Idleb. I spent a week in the province interviewing fighters and activists, attending demonstrations and gatherings of FSA fighters.
As it turned out, I missed the counter-attack. Bashar’s army did not begin to retake the rebel-held zones of Idleb until early March. The 76th Mechanized Brigade came through over the course of the month, leaving a trail of blood and executions in its wake. By that time, I had already made the return journey across the mountains — back to Antakya, and then to Ankara, and then to my home in Jerusalem.
Things have changed since that February, and not to the Assad regime’s benefit. The determined and systematic counterattack launched by the dictator’s army in February and March has not produced the hoped-for quiet. The army can still retake any area it chooses, but when it moves on the rebellion comes back to life.
Forty thousand men are now under arms against Bashar Assad’s regime. His own force still nominally consists of 220,000 troops, but in reality he can make practical use of probably around a third of that number.