Hospital with machine-guns
Northern Latakia was an unassailable fortress to the Syrian army during the long years of schism. The militants were leisurely fortifying comfortable mountain towns, transforming hillside villas into fortifications. All of these fortification masterpieces could be taken only as part of a well-planned advance against commanding heights, and only if the militants’ supplies were cut. Without air support it was mission impossible.
We are driving along winding mountain roads and see the results of bombings on the roadsides and turns–wide craters in solid rock, burned out and flattened vehicles. Checkpoints, dust-covered Syrian soldiers marching on road shoulders and weighed down with rucksacks, mattresses, inevitable tea-kettles and gas burners. A grim, camouflaged crowd on the shoulder–the soldiers are reading funeral prayers for a fallen comrade. The frontline is near.
Kinsabba is thoroughly decked out in militant propaganda graffiti, jihadi stickers, and unit symbols. Some of the signs make one’s skin crawl: “I will slaughter Shias and Alawites. A visitor.” It takes a real skill to be able to express the purpose of this war to all new arrivals, pithily and without diplomatic evasiveness. Of course, there were more than enough local militants.
We are going to a Syrian Army observation point. We observe the valley at our feet–its opposing slope is still held by the militants. Turkey is within arm’s reach, and foreign cell phone firms are constantly offering their services. An elderly man in camouflage explains unhurriedly:
–We took Kinsabba from the south and east, artillery and aircraft supported us. It was important to liberate because it is right on the border of Latakia and Idlib provinces. It was their last large defensive stronghold in Latakia. The village of Dama on the opposing slope is already on Turkish border. It is part of the Idlib province.
–So Latakia is fully liberated?
–There are a few towns right on the border, 18% of the province’s territory, and we are keeping up the pressure. These towns are not strategically important. So on the whole the liberation of Latakia is complete. Now I’ll be able to go home to Salma. Only I don’t have a home, it was blown up by the militants.
Our conversation ends, the observer has noticed movement. We can see a black-clad figure on the slope fold his prayer rug after finishing prayers. The little figure bends and unbends like a robot, striking the rock with a pickaxe in order to dig a fighting position. Other militants are barely visible in their new positions. Syrian soldiers fire at them with assault rifles, then an RPK light machine-gun joins the fray, but the militants keep on digging. A truck with an anti-aircraft gun is summoned by radio. The observer corrects fire and our interlocutor, Ahmad Tafran, takes us to the kitchen. He opens the cupboard and reaches for a parcel of Turkish food. He points to the horizon:
–See that road? That was the main route used to supply the militants from Turkey.
We look at the road, which is covered with blindingly-white rocks and stands out against the backdrop of grey-green mountains. Food, ammunition, equipment, and reinforcements were all brought to Kinsabba and then distributed among mountain fortresses. Now the road is covered by militia’s and army’s point-blank range fire. The militants in Latakia are done.
An interview in the ruins
Akhmad reports to the commander and then takes us to his hometown of Salma. During the fall we used to watch for hours as a fiery whip lashed that city. For days on end. It would seem that nobody could hold out. But the militants hung on by their teeth. We were told why.
Akhmad no longer has a home, it neatly collapsed after it was blown up from within two years ago before the fighting here even started. His face turns ash-grey, like the concrete ruins in front of him. He came here several times already, trying to drag something from under the ruins. In the tall, dry grass we see a car jack Akhmad used to lift up the concrete slabs and some kitchen equipment which is now suitable only for scrap.
–I am a native of Salma, I was born here,–Akhmad tells us. In 2011, when the invasions into Syria began, some of the families here organized disorders and demonstrations. My family and relatives refused to join them. But with time the demonstrators organized themselves into armed units. They had help. They offered me to become a commander of a group of 100 fighters. They promised me some serious money, 200 thousand lira a month, a fortune at the time. But I am not a poor man. I am a builder, I build houses. He refused, he didn’t want to oppose the government–I had nothing to complain about. I lived well and my neighbors did too. But it turned out not everyone was happy with a life like that…I started to get threats and had to leave Salma for the countryside. I signed up for the army right away and took part in the liberation of my city. I had something to fight for–the militants killed my two brothers and blew up my house. All of my male relatives are here on the front lines, in the hills around Salma.
Akhmad crouches and summons us with a hand gesture. We look under the fallen slabs:
–Here was my daughters’ bedroom.
Shards of plastic toys, little cupboards and beds, are sticking out from under the mass of concrete…
We leave Akhmad to continue surveying his ruined home.