Jonathan Spyer is the author of Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.
The mountains outside Antakya were wrapped in black clouds the day we crossed the border from Turkey into Syria. The smugglers said this was a good sign as the Syrian Army patrols don't care for rain and mud, and would tend to stay in their huts, making our crossing safer. That was how it turned out. We pushed up the border fence and crawled through at around 9 p.m. There were horses heavily laden with contraband waiting for us just inside. We rode them across the mountains in the rain and arrived in Syria without being seen.
I had made contact with the smugglers in Antakya through Syrian opposition friends, some days previously. This is the only way into northern Syria for journalists at the present time. I wanted to head to Idleb Province, one of the centers of the insurgency against the Assad family dictatorship, and now one of the regime's main targets. My purpose was to gain an impression of the Free Syrian Army, the increasingly important armed element in the revolt against Assad, from inside one of its heartland areas.
Antakya itself is buzzing with the semi-visible activities of both the Syrian regime and the opposition. The Free Syrian Army in Antakya is immensely security-conscious, particularly since the kidnapping and forced return to Syria of its founding member, Colonel Hussein Harmoush, last year. But the activities of the FSA are also severely restricted by the Turkish authorities, which watch it carefully, and whose gaze it seeks to avoid.
Antakya combines this sense of intrigue with the questionable charms of a mountain resort town in winter. Prior to crossing, I met with an FSA officer, Captain Ayham al-Kurdi, for an initial briefing.
I spoke with Kurdi in a rundown office in an apartment. A native of Hama, the 30-year-old former signals officer in a Syrian antiaircraft unit described to me how he came to the insurgency.
He was stationed near Daraa, a town close to the Jordanian border and the birthplace of the uprising, in mid-2011. He recalled his shock at witnessing the use of anti-aircraft munitions against civilian demonstrators in the area, as the Assad regime sought to murder the revolt in its cradle.
The use of these munitions was intended as a tool of terror. Their bullets kill people no more or less than regular ordnance. But from the regime's point of view, they had the additional attraction of setting the bodies of those they hit on fire, turning the corpse into a symbol of deterrence to all who would challenge Assad's rule. What they also did was to make Ayham al-Kurdi and others reassess their view of the government. Kurdi made his decision to desert, and help set up the beginnings of armed resistance to Assad.
Kurdi's assessment of the strategic reality facing the Syrian revolution was grim: "If there is no international or Arab intervention," he made clear, "this situation could continue for years." The revolution has powerful enemies. The captain counted them on his hands, and the reasons for their enmity to the insurgency against Assad. First, Iran: "The Syrian revolution," said Kurdi, "was a shock for the Iranian project. The Iranians want to control the region — Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf. The Syrian revolution came to break this dream. So it is natural for the Iranians to help Assad."
But together with the Iranians, there were their Lebanese clients, Hezbollah, and beyond this Russia and China, looming and impervious. "A great Arabic and international movement" is what Captain Kurdi wants to counteract this. He is not confident that it will come.
Before I left his office for the border and the smugglers, as a way of farewell, Kurdi shared with me a curious rumor — if it is a rumor — that I would hear repeated a number of times in the days ahead. It concerned the possible use of chemical warfare by Assad against protesters. The claim was made regarding the Homs area, which even more so than Idleb, is currently the main focus of the regime's violence. Homs city is being subjected to a merciless pounding by government artillery.
In Talbisa, next to Homs city, Kurdi told me, they sprayed pesticides on demonstrators from the air. The soldiers were equipped with a new type of gas mask. "Assad said before that we were germs," he concluded, "now we're insects. I guess that's progress." He wished me luck inside.
On the highway, once in Syria, we were vulnerable to any sudden spotchecks the army cared to place. But once we entered Idleb Province, the extent of the precarious gains made by rebel fighters in recent weeks became apparent. In towns like Binnish and Sarmin, the regime of Bashar al-Assad no longer exists, at least in visible form.