Crouching, belly-crawling into sniper nests in their rugged mountain redoubt, Syrian rebels have started training for a prolonged guerrilla war against stubbornly resilient regime forces.
With Western reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria’s civil war, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) hopes to topple President Bashar al-Assad by creating a skilled fighting force from mostly civilian recruits, some as young as 16.
The FSA granted AFP access to one of its training camps, where a motley group of fighters — former shopkeepers, farmers, regime defectors — were training to fight Assad’s forces in the mountains and woods of northern Latakia province.
Sprinting up a wooded knoll, crisscrossing between trees, and diving into firing positions, rebels weighed down with guns and bandoliers of ammunition put on a swaggering show of defiance within range of regime troops at a nearby garrison.
But the rebels of the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade acknowledged they face a tough fight against a better-armed foe that enjoys total air superiority — even above rebel-controlled areas — as the civil war drags into its third year.
“We need anti-tank, anti-aircraft missiles, communication equipment, satellite technology to monitor the movement of regime fighters,” said brigade commander Abu Basir, rattling off a list of much-needed hardware as his men practiced marksmanship behind him.
“If we had these, the war would be over by now,” said Abu Basir, the former owner of a meat processing business, who was dressed in olive-green fatigues with a pistol tucked into his trousers.
Latakia — the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect — has fluid frontlines, unlike those in hotly-contested cities like Damascus and Aleppo where fighting is largely being fought from sniper nests in civilian buildings.
Latakia’s guerilla war is inching from village to village, hilltop to hilltop as the regime fiercely guards the Mediterranean coastline that is expected to be the final refuge of the Assad family should Damascus fall.
“If we attack from the front, we will be fodder for Assad’s long range artillery,” said FSA rebel Abu Tareq. “We just don’t have that kind of military power. Our strategy is to attack covertly on multiple fronts, rattle them, tire them out.”
“This means that freedom won’t come tomorrow but, God willing, it will come the day after.”
The rebels claim they have made gains in recent months, capturing many Alawite-dominated villages, but have struggled to dislodge regime forces from their entrenched positions on strategic high ridges.
On Saturday a watchdog said hundreds of families were fleeing Sunni districts of the port city of Banias, south of Latakia, a day after shelling on their neighbourhoods and reports of a “large-scale massacre” in a nearby Sunni village on Thursday.
“They started fleeing at dawn this morning from Sunni neighbourhoods in the south of the city towards Tartus and Jableh,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Jableh is located north of Banias, while Tartus is south of the city.
FSA forces in the area lost several fighters in a fierce battle late last month to capture the regime-held peak of Nabi Yunis, Latakia’s highest point which offers a key vantage point over the battle zone.
Another growing challenge is regime spies and infiltrators, who have been launching mysterious red flares in the night from rebel-held territories to signal government forces, possibly to mark targets for bombing.
The rebels have repeated calls for a no-fly zone over Syria, as the conflict has ground to a stalemate. They are unable to assemble large platoons in one place for a targeted assault amid air raids by regime helicopters and fighter jets.
As the day wore on at the training camp, gunfire reverberated through the mountains and rebel commanders ordered the men to halt the mock exercises.
“Stop!” barked senior commander Jamil Lala, as he sat on a boulder clutching his prayer beads. “Save your bullets.”
He climbed into his SUV, ordering his guards to roll down their windows so that the glass would not shatter on to their faces if regime forces shell them.
As the car wound its way down the mountain slopes, it passed terraced olive fields and villages littered with the mangled remains of burnt out vehicles and abandoned houses scarred by bullets.
The United States said on Thursday that the administration of President Barack Obama was taking a fresh look at arming Syrian rebels.
But rebels say Western dithering over intervention has boosted foreign Islamist fighters who have flooded into Syria – including Libyan revolutionaries and Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists from Iraq, eager to create an Islamic Caliphate in the country.
And while their battlefield prowess makes them an asset, some of their actions has created tensions with the ostensibly secular-leaning FSA, Lala said, back at the brigade base.
“Al-Nusra says this is haram (forbidden),” he said, drawing on an apple-flavoured narghile, or water pipe. He was referring to fighters from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front who recently sought to impose a ban on public smoking in some rebel-held areas.
“The Koran is a book from God, the Bible is a book from God. No one has the right to impose their interpretation on the word of God,” he said as smoke curled out of his mouth.
“If you want to pray, go pray. If you want to smoke narghile, go smoke narghile. That is the kind of Syria we want to create.”