On top of a building in Syria’s war-devastated eastern city of Deir Ezzor, rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have hanged a toy stuffed lion by the neck.
“This will be the fate of Assad (“lion” in Arabic) when we finally achieve victory in the revolution,” said one young rebel.
“Until then, there will be no peace or truce until we finish him off and avenge the thousands of martyrs in this war.”
Two years ago a pro-democracy movement spread across Syria in the first heady days of the Arab Spring before turning into an armed uprising after Assad unleashed a brutal crackdown.
More than 70,000 people have died since March 15, 2011, a million fled the country and millions more are displaced at home and battling hardships for their very survival.
But Mohammed Dmin, leader of a unit of Islamist fighters, said he still has the energy to fight on.
His long beard proclaims his strong religious convictions, which he said have led him to fight for an “Islamic path,” in moderate form along the lines of that of neighbouring Turkey.
“Weapons are the only possible and viable solution to ending the war,” said Dmin. “Dialogue is no longer possible … We will not talk to Bashar, but only fight until victory. We will fight till our last breath.”
Deir Ezzor, a once thriving oil hub on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, has become a practical ghost town.
Some 200,000 people of the original 750,000 residents still remain in the city, and the province of the same name is about 80 percent controlled by the rebels.
Assad’s forces pound rebel positions in the city itself nearly every day with bombs and artillery.
In the city centre, the landscape is desolate. Buildings are riddled with the scars of shelling and gunfire, homes devastated, the streets covered with rubble.
— Too much blood —
“There is too much blood in the soil for us to give up now when we are so close to victory,” argued Dmin.
“This is jihad (holy war), and everyone is welcome to join us. When the war broke out in Iraq (in 2003), many of us went to the aid of our brothers against the United States. I don’t see what the problem is.”
But another rebel commander, Abu Salam Tabsah, disagrees, saying there is very much a problem.
“We are beginning to have problems with… the Islamic brigades because they have objectives that are not ours, that we do not share. We are in a revolution and they come here looking for jihad and martyrdom.”
In the Huweika district, on the banks of the Euphrates, the fighting is intense and the discussions focused on the immediate task at hand — getting rid of Assad.
“We do not tire of fighting,” said Abu Hussein, “because we are motivated by revenge. We have the strength of all those who have died over these two years,” he said.
“If we give up or stop to negotiate, Assad will have no pity on us and will kill us all. There are only two possible paths: victory or death.”
Abu Hassen heads the Deir Ezzor contingent of the Al-Nusra Front, a well-armed, highly disciplined Islamist group.
“We cannot be tired because we are in jihad,” he said, while arguing that Assad was a coward and would flee Syria instead of risking the capture and ignominious death that Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi suffered in 2011.
“After this life, Paradise awaits, and if we die in combat it will be an honour to be at the side of Allah. He gives us the strength to carry on.”
Abu Salam Tabsah, the commander, also speaks of soldiering on.
“Until this regime has fallen and we have a strong and stable government, we will not lay down our arms,” he said defiantly.
But despite the bravado, he acknowledged that “we are tired of all this war; we want to go home.”
And that holds for his enemies as well.
“Every day many soldiers desert because they are worn out by the fighting. Some of them have been billeted in their barracks for 17 months without speaking to their families,” he said.
“I would just like to start driving my taxi again and forget this nightmare.”