In a mountain hideout on Syria’s border with Turkey, amid olive trees and Roman ruins, Abu Suleiman’s band of fighters barely flinch as Syrian army shells crash in the distance.
The rebel fighters rule the roost over dozens of square kilometres (square miles) of steep, rocky terrain and fertile red soil, dotted with hamlets and villages, in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Some of them fought in the city of Idlib, overtaken by government forces last week as rebels pulled back to the safety of the mountains.
“Their tanks can’t climb up here, and they’re scared of ambushes,” said Abu Suleiman. “And we’re so near the Turkish border that (President) Bashar (al-Assad) wouldn’t dare use planes because he fears the Turks.”
The son of a prominent figure from the city of Hama in central Syria who was killed in the notoriously brutal suppression of a 1982 revolt, Abu Suleiman has assembled one of the multitude of armed groups fighting the regime.
Abu Suleiman, 35, who finances the weapons for the unit which carries his name, greets the young gunmen posted at crossroads and entrances to villages as he makes his daily rounds at the wheel of a white saloon car.
He says the unit has 1,000 fighters.
Housed in four breezeblock cabins at the top of a hill rich with springtime greenery, circled by the ruins of Roman baths, an AFP journalist spotted 30 of them on Sunday.
A fighter wounded at Idlib by a bullet in the shoulder, Nasser, 24, lay under a blanket with a sad smile on his face, bandaged and attached to a drip, as he took in some sunshine.
Abu Suleiman’s men are lightly armed, with Kalashknikov assault rifles, some machineguns, a launcher with a single grenade. The way many of them carry their arms show they are new to the game, although some are army deserters.
“Our aim is to drive Bashar’s army off the whole mountain,” said Abu Suleiman. “We will make them flee the villages where they’re still around and this will be our region: launchpad of the liberation,” he said.
“We don’t need men. What we do need is arms: anti-tanks rockets, surface-to-air missiles. Modern and effective stuff,” said the rebel chief.
“How long will it talk? Who can say? But the United Nations may take two years to finally take some kind of decision. We can wait. This war will be a long one,” he predicted.
The Abu Suleiman fighters hold a slice of territory and say they cooperate with nearby units to carry out raids on security forces. But they are no admirers of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), based across the border in Turkey.
“I’ve been three times to Turkey to see its leader, Riyadh al-Asaad,” said Captain Ayub, a second-in command.
“I asked him to give us money, guns. He didn’t do a thing. He’s all talk. He’s a liar. What he wants is to take Bashar’s place in the palace, nothing else!” he charged, angrily.
Fighters who don’t sleep in the small base are put up in safehouses, one in each hamlet.
They spend their time watching videos on laptops of how to assemble bombs and roadside bombs. They carry homemade grenades and say their modest arsenal also includes large versions capable of taking out armoured cars.
On a rooftop, thousands of automatic weapons rounds were spread out for drying from several days of rainfall in the region.
“We need more,” said Abdullah Zarzur, 30, who was an Arabic teacher before the anti-Assad revolt broke out last March that has cost thousands of lives in a regime crackdown.
“These come from Lebanon but we need more powerful weapons. If the UN and NATO don’t help us, our battle will drag on for years. Bashar is strong. He’s been arming his people for the past 40 years” of rule by the Assad family.
As Abu Suleiman’s men fired off practise rounds at rocks, alarmed young men on donkeys loaded with olive wood kicked their spurs to hurry off.