“For example we have problem with Dawla Isis, but they won’t come and attack us directly — that would be too costly for them and they don’t have an excuse. What they do is attack the weaker units on the pretext that their commander is a bandit or a looter — they only fight one force at a time,” he said. “I don’t want to give them a pretext to kill me, because I can’t stand against them on my own.”
The lieutenant’s men had been attacking a government outpost in a farmhouse on the eastern plains of Hama with tanks and few heavy artillery pieces. The rebel unit had moved down to Hama Province in an attempt to open a new front — partly to break the stalemate at the front and partly in an attempt to capture fresh supplies from government outposts. Some of the loot would be sold to feed the men — the rest would be added to the unit’s armory.
After three days, the house was reduced to rubble, but the troops inside were still holding out. The lieutenant was getting agitated that the operation was taking so long and on the third day, he ordered his most prized weapon — a T72 Russian tank — into battle.
For five hours the tank ground along a narrow road through pine forests and scattered villages of small houses and ancient Roman ruins. The straight lines of the Roman remains stood in contrast to meek and ugly village houses. Sometimes the two architectures mixed: A Roman archway became part of a cowshed, a delicate column supported a crude balcony of breeze blocks and metal sheets.
In a car following the tank, the lieutenant considered his options.
“Wherever you turn, your choices are difficult,” he said. “Do I sell my tanks and artillery, and give the money to my men? Do I lose my weapons to the Islamists in the coming war? Do I destroy them?”
“We have reached the end of the line: If we don’t get support, we will lose. Soon it will be, either you give allegiance to the Islamists or are killed,” he said.
We drove down from the hills onto the Hama plains. Passing through a small market town, the massive tank negotiated a narrow lane between pickups piled high with red peppers and aubergines. The car radio was tuned to a government station playing the Lebanese singer Fairuz, who sang about love and loss, before a news bulletin came on and the presenter described how all “terrorists” had been cleared from Hama Province.
“Oh you terrorists, you will be defeated! Defeated! Defeated!” the presenter said.
Silence fell in the car.
Ancient Russian tanks — rebel and loyalist — were lobbing shells at each other across a pistachio grove like street children throwing stones in an alleyway. The explosions sent orange columns of dust into the haze of the setting sun. Near the outpost, a government tank was smoldering and a young girl lay dead, hit by shrapnel. A group of rebels crawled through the fields for almost 2km until they reached the edge of the outpost.
However, before they managed to scale the fortifications they were spotted — a shell landed nearby and machine-gun fire broke out, pinning them down. Two fighters kicked the dirt with their heels trying to make a shallow trench. Bullets whistled through the trees shredding leaves and tree trunks. Rebel mortars landed nearby; some of the fighters dropped their guns and withdrew. On the other side of the berm, government troops fired at the rebels from hatches in the ruined outpost.