Robert Fisk speaks to a colonel confidently preparing his men for battle at Frikeh in the Orontes river valley where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month
Approaching front lines is usually the same. First come the fields and the farmers still hopefully taking in their crops, the little villages where the buses and trucks are mixed up with military traffic, the barber shops and clothing stores catering for the soldiers.
Then comes the occasional smashed house, checkpoints and a disused railway line, followed by a village of ruins and burning fields where the shells have set the corn alight. There are a few tanks skulking behind a gutted villa, columns of brown smoke and then the officer in the army who knows – is absolutely convinced, in a very loud voice – that victory will be theirs.
It was like that along the Orontes, just half a mile from the Islamist lines outside Jisr al-Shugur. The villages were as unknown as those of the Somme must have been in 1913. Shatha, Jourine, al-Ziarah and finally Frikeh on a knoll about the captured town, now entirely in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, from which the last besieged Syrian troops fought their way out to death or freedom last month.
Colonel Saleh commands the soldiers who were to have broken through the lines to rescue them and who did manage to bash their way miles through the forces of the “Army of Conquest” – but were finally halted within sight of the three-storey hospital from which the Syrian soldiers finally emerged. You can still see the white-painted building which almost entombed them, just behind the Jisr al-Shugur sugar factory.
Col Saleh, a big portly man with shades who was born in a nearby village, sat in his command post, an old single-storey home beside a shell-holed street, offering cherries and advice to his visitors in a very – and I mean very – strong voice. We were sitting in part of Idlib province, he shouted (the only tiny bit of Idlib not in the hands of his Islamist enemies, he might have added), and his soldiers would not rest until every inch of the Syrian Arab Republic was free of “terrorists”.
This sounded a tall order after the fall of Palmyra and Jisr al-Shugur, but the colonel was in his element, oblivious to the columns of smoke rising from the neighbouring hills and the occasional knock-knock of bullets.
His soldiers were men of honour, he boomed. Whenever he had captured a “terrorist”, he had never killed him – as the “terrorists” did their prisoners – but handed him over to “the security”, which admittedly sounded a bit like a death sentence. “We can lose a town – this happens in war,” he declared, mindful, no doubt, of the captured town less than a mile from him, not to mention the recent loss of Palmyra. “But we like to think of ourselves as doctors, either cutting out the tumour or fighting the germs which have infected our body. From the plains [of the Orontes] into the mountains, we have advanced and we will never stop until Syria has returned to normal.”
He “knew” the Syrian army would be victorious. Col Saleh even expressed his confidence that the son of President Bashar al-Assad would one day be leader of Syria. Presumably after elections.
But to the sunburnt, bearded, hard-faced Syrian soldiers in the street outside, who snapped to attention and grinned at their colonel, the roaring-voiced officer was probably the man they needed at this hour. “I come from a mountain village just to the south of here,” he confided to us. “That’s why I speak so loudly.” I suggested, Wellington-like, that if he did not frighten his enemy, he certainly frightened me. Alas, the colonel took the remark seriously.
High above him, across a broken motorway that once led to Jisr al-Shugur, a railway viaduct carried its rusting tracks through Islamist-held territory almost to the Turkish border where, the Syrians believe, their enemies to the north receive their arms.
“We fought our way up here, hand to hand, and now confront the enemy,” the colonel announced. Which was true, although it must have been a close-run thing. Jabhat al-Nusra forces infest the hill of Zaazouni just to the south-east of us and the mountains to the east and west, and Jisr al-Shugur, which we see so clearly in front of us to the north. Syrian troops were in the ultra-modern thermal electric station to the immediate south which – so the colonel said – had prevented him from using shells for fear of damaging the plant.
You approach the ancient Orontes from the Mediterranean across the hills from Alawite Qardaha, home and final resting place of Mr Assad’s father, Hafez. Towering mountains guard the passes into the mist-filled basin of the river with its curtains of wheat fields stretching east towards land long lost to the government.
But down in the valley, Syrian trucks and tank transporters hum along the highway and as we cross the green-scummed Orontes, Col Saleh’s army – and his retreating enemies – have left their tracks. There are the burnt-out open trucks so beloved of the Nusra militias, a tank chassis with its turret blown off, a street of burnt-out homes, looted by the Nusra men a few weeks ago, plastic chairs in the gardens, cheap concrete roofs collapsed over gardens of tortured pink and red roses.
“In this village, they massacred more than 100 men, women and children, Alawites,” one of Col Saleh’s men said. The towns around here are Alawite or Shia or in some cases Sunni, but Nusra – Sunnis themselves – evicted or killed the Sunni villagers, because they worked with the government. The fields smell of something rotten and plagues of mosquitoes settle around us whenever we leave our vehicle. On some of the burnt walls, you can still read the Nusra’s “Men of God” graffiti. Behind lies the field hospital where Jisr’s break-out soldiers and the civilians with them finally found sanctuary. “We were happy because of their courage,” Col Saleh’s colleague said of the rescued troops – which was one way of glossing a defeat.
But if the Syrian army can hold on here in the valley, which it intends to do, then Nusra might have been gorged, for now. It clearly paid a price when the colonel’s men stormed north in their attempt to reach Jisr al-Shugur. Behind the poplar trees and a gentle blue fishing lake, there are lines of multi-barrelled missile launchers, which means another battle to come.
“Syria used to be so beautiful,” one soldier lamented, leaning through the window of our vehicle. They probably said that once about the waters of the Somme or the Marne and every other soft place where the world suddenly changed and nations confronted powerful enemies.