As Syrian forces battled to recapture the rebel stronghold of Salma last week, they relied not only on Russian air support but also a secret weapon: motorbikes.
Adapting a tactic used by both their rebel opponents and the pro-regime fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, government forces used dozens of the vehicles to navigate the town’s tiny alleys.
Soldiers said they were key to the recapture of Salma, a town that was a rare rebel stronghold in the regime bastion of coastal Latakia province.
Syrian army soldier Hany, 25, said he spent most of the past nine months on a motorbike, fighting street battles for the town that fell from government control in 2012.
“The way we fight has changed since the beginning of the war, and we have developed our offensive methods,” he said, dismounting from his muddy vehicle after a spin through the recaptured town.
“Nowadays, we use motorbikes for their speed and mobility,” he said.
While rebel snipers managed to hit a car delivering meals to regime forces several times, Hany said he could outmanoeuvre such fire.
“My bike is harder to track and is too light to set off landmines,” he said.
While small, Salma’s many narrow alleys, and the forests and hills that surround it, made the fight for its recapture long and hard.
Some of the streets were entirely unnavigable with cars, armoured vehicles or tanks, troops said.
“It was the use of more than 80 motorbikes in the last battle for the town that had the greatest impact in terms of winning in the final 72 hours,” one field commander told AFP.
“The motorbikes allowed us to transfer the wounded, carry light ammunition and food and were used by fighters carrying machine guns and night vision binoculars,” he said.
He too had ended up riding one to inspect his troops and front lines.
“I check on my troops by motorbike because they are fast and light, and much more difficult to track than a car would be,” the commander said.
Motorbikes have long been used by rebels in Syria and beyond, and the commander acknowledged the tactic is one regime forces picked up from their foes.
“We don’t deny that we learned the tactic of using motorbikes from the militants,” he said.
“We’ve come up with an advanced course on street fighting and guerrilla warfare, and fighting on motorbikes may become a tactic that regular armies come to rely on,” he added.
Another soldier, 38-year-old Reda Haj, said his first encounter with motorbikes on Syria’s battlefields was in Qalamun in Damascus province, where the pro-regime Hezbollah movement used them.
The Shiite militant group has been a key force multiplier for the Syrian regime, fighting alongside its troops on several fronts.
“We observed the great flexibility that the speed of a motorbike gives, and that it was harder for the enemy to track, and little by little we began using them in our tactics and attacks,” he told AFP.
Haj said motorbikes were introduced to the battle for Salma nine months ago, when the regime committed to a new offensive to take the town.
“We were divided into groups, with each group assigned three motorbikes that were used to move food and ammunition and transport the wounded from areas that ambulances couldn’t access,” he said.
“It’s fun to ride in times of peace, and in times of war they are useful. Eventually they’ll become an essential piece of equipment, like a gun or ammunition.”
The battle for Salma was fierce and destructive, and much of the town has been left in ruins.
Whole facades of buildings have been ripped down and balconies that once looked out into the hills surrounding Salma have collapsed.
For now, civilians have yet to return, and graffiti left by rebel groups that included Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, is still daubed on walls.
But the capture of the town has been a key victory for the regime, which last year suffered a string of defeats.
The government launched several offensives across Syria after staunch ally Russia began air strikes in late September.
Some of those operations have stalled, but the Salma recapture, which saw Russian planes carry out dozens of air strikes, has been a much-sought boost for government forces.
In one alleyway in the town, a group of Syrian soldiers sat warming themselves around a fire, drinking yerba mate, a tea drink popular in Syria.
“I haven’t put my weapon down for nine months,” said Abdul Karim Mahfuz, a 26-year-old soldier, smiling as he sat with his comrades.
“We were always at the ready… But today I’m holding a cup of mate in my hands, and my gun is by my side.”