As his brother spread out blankets on the porch, the businessman stared up at the night sky and smoked his last cigarette of the day.
“This is not a revolution against a regime anymore, this is a civil war,” he said.
The next day, in a sparsely furnished living room with thinly whitewashed walls and bare wires sprouting from electrical sockets, the smuggler and the businessman sat on sofas and argued about a missing shipment of rockets. The smuggler had worked the secret routes across the Lebanese border from the age of 11; he was shot at for the first time aged 12 and ran his own network when he was barely 17. He is proud never to have owned an ID card or a passport in his life. He fidgeted and moved constantly, tapping on his smartphone, buying weapons, selling rockets, importing cars and arranging the schooling of his many nephews and nieces.
He opened Google Earth on his phone, zooming in closer and closer until the screen showed a small grey square: the house where his family used to live.
“Before, all my family was in Syria and I worried about them. Now, they’ve got out, but I have lost my land. I have reached a point of despair,” he said.
“I feel I can’t breathe. I have 20 people to look after — to feed them and school them — and it’s not a matter of months, but years. I was in the revolution at the beginning and I used to think that was going to be progress — but now we have lost everything. We don’t talk about military plans and hitting the regime — now the plotting is against each other,” he said.
The third man worked as a shepherd as a child, spending long weeks trekking alone with his sheep in the arid hills of southern Syria. School was a 3km hike; like many young Bedouins from his region, he joined the military as soon as he graduated from high school. He eventually became a lieutenant.
Soon after the revolution began in early 2011, he defected, joining other rebel officers in the north. He made his reputation when his unit attacked an army base and captured several tanks, and became the commander of one of the rebel forces’ first armored battalions.
In those days, he was lean and tense, with a wispy Che Guevara beard; his looks and his heroism inspired devotion in his men. He read history books and drew lessons from the tactics of the Russian partisans in World War II.
Like most Bedouins, he spoke rarely, and when he did open his mouth, he was frank to the point of rudeness. However, amid the chaos of civil war, he was keen to impose discipline: Every morning he would drive around his base, inspecting his men’s clothes and weapons.
“How do you impose discipline?” he asked. “There is nothing that can make your fighters do things if they didn’t want to. There is no military order; I don’t pay them money and I can’t put them in jail. The bond between you and your men comes from battle: If they respect you as a fighter, they will follow you.”
After traveling into Syria, the businessman and the smuggler arrived where the lieutenant was staying with some of his men. They found him sitting on the floor, absorbed with his iPad, which was emitting a stream of battle sounds and explosive sound effects. Briefly, he raised his head to greet the other two, then returned to his computer game.
Dressed in a dirty white vest and combat trousers, he seemed much older.