“If they all fight like this, this army won’t give up until Bashar [al-Assad] is dead,” the commander of the rebel attackers said.
However, by early evening the government troops abandoned their position, falling back under cover of heavy shelling. The rebels packed the ruined outpost with explosives and blew it up. The attack had cost the rebels one life and 11 wounded. The unit had used ammunition worth ￡43,000 (US$69,362) and the only salvageable government weapon was a machine gun.
“For three days I’ve been attacking this checkpoint,” the lieutenant said. “I ask myself why, but I don’t know. Maybe because I can. Maybe because I need to keep my men busy, but honestly, I don’t know the purpose of all this. In Syria, everyone has lost. No one is winning.”
As we drove back to the rebel base, the road was lit by a full moon and Fairuz was on the radio again — this time singing an old musical set in a Lebanese mountain village transformed into a battlefield by two feuding families.
The lieutenant listened for a while and then said: “After almost three years of war, we’ve discovered that we are good fighters — but bad politicians. We know how to carry a rifle, but we don’t know who is benefitting from this.”
The next day, the lieutenant decided he needed a break from war.
A few days later, the smuggler, the lieutenant and another rebel officer were walking through an Istanbul shopping mall packed with Arab tourists. After two-and-a-half years of war, the two men said they had finally decided to leave Syria and the war for good.
They stopped at a Starbucks where they sat laughing at each other’s jokes. They had Nike shopping bags and new jeans, and the smuggler was — as usual — fidgeting with his phone.
“I don’t know what are we doing here,” he said. “Back home, the world is collapsing.”
Later, in the food court upstairs, the smuggler and the lieutenant ate lunch with another man, a people-smuggler, who told them how they could be spirited across the border into Greece and from there into Italy, where they could start a new life with their families.
By the end of the meal, they had agreed on a plan. The man told them to be ready to leave the next day. US$2,000 would be deposited with a colleague, to be handed over when they reached Italy.
After their contact had left, the smuggler turned to the lieutenant and asked him: “Do you trust him?”
“I don’t trust anyone,” he answered.
They headed downstairs to Zara, where they could buy clothes for the trip.
The businessman arrived in Istanbul the next day and drove to a large hotel for a conference of center-right Islamists who had gathered to express support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The lobby was filled with preachers and religious dignitaries from around the Arab world, Syrian rebel commanders and a group of Kuwaiti politicians. On one side, a Sudanese man in extravagant headgear held court. Further on, an Emirati sheikh chatted amiably with an Iraqi MP wanted on charges of terrorism. The mix felt like the crowd in the Star Wars bar.
In the midst of this walked in the businessman. He was wearing the same cheap trainers he wore in Syria, khaki trousers and a T-shirt, and struggled to keep a straight face as he walked between the small circles of men speaking in grandiose terms about the glory of Islam, Western conspiracies and the Syrian tragedy.