Inside the war for Syria’s mountains

Martin Chulov reports from the Alawite heartland in the mountains of western Syria: The al-Nusra member the Guardian met had not been expecting strangers. His head swathed in a black turban, and with a Kalashnikov strapped to his chest, he walked slowly down a potholed road towards us before stopping warily several metres away. He scanned us purposefully from head to toe, inhaled deeply, then said: “What’s going on?”

The American-accented English was as much a surprise as finding him there in the first place, living in a house next door to the main rebel outpost in the region, along with 20 or so other members of the group at the vanguard of the fighting.

His opening remark was less an icebreaker, however, than the beginning of an interrogation. For 40 minutes, sometimes chilling, sometimes charming, he tried to gauge our provenance and our reason for journeying south into Jebel al-Krud, the giant plateau that soars above Latakia and Tartous to the south.

The region is steeped in Islamic history, and has a tradition of sectarian coexistence. About 800 years ago, the Islamic warrior Salah al-Din – a Kurd better known to Europeans as Saladin – used the mountains and valleys of the area to prepare to battle the Crusaders. Kurds travelled with him from what is now northern Iraq, and settled here. Christian and Alawite communities are also long established.

Our interrogator eventually offered tea. “You do not share my ideology,” he said. “But you are here on humanitarian grounds.” The concession amounted to a travel pass. “Where is your flak jacket? We have an obligation before God to do what we can to protect ourselves,” he said, pointing at the camouflage vest covering his shirt. “So should you.”

Sheer cliffs climbed vertically from the first stretch of the road south, soon giving way to plunging, emerald ravines still flush with blue floodwaters. Villages peppered the hilltops, grey blobs against an iridescent green whenever they emerged from the fog.

Around one bend, white crosses jutted starkly from the graves on a hilltop. This was the Christian village of Jdeida, on the edge of Idlib province and Jebel al-Krud. Barely a home here had escaped shell damage since it was taken by rebel groups six weeks earlier. And next to none of the locals had remained.

One family had stayed behind. “We don’t have an option,” the elderly Christian man said. “The situation is as you see it. This is the first time there hasn’t been shelling here in more than a week. We haven’t seen the sun or sat in our garden in all that time.”

The man’s wife picked an orange from the tree at the centre of the courtyard and offered it on a silver tray.

His 90-year-old mother sat on a stone wall, her left eye red with a chronic infection, her right streaming with tears. “We can’t go anywhere to get medicine,” she said between sobs. “We are not with anyone, my son. We are too old for this. Please let it end.”

Neither side seems to have any will to bring the war for the mountains to a close. [Continue reading…]

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