JABAL ZAWIYA, SYRIA — The drab building in the center of a quiet hilltop village in Syria's northwestern Idlib province used to be a town hall. But on this afternoon in early August, a dozen young men in ripped T-shirts and camouflage pants, not one over age 30, are lounging in its office's chairs and desks sipping coffee and smoking an endless chain of cigarettes, weapons at their sides. Above their heads, the graffiti spray painted on the wall marks the office's transfer of power: "No traitors here." Having seized it from the Syrian army days before, they are now using it as something of an operations center, though it more often calls to mind the unbridled testosterone of a fraternity house.
Cars without license plates slam on the brakes outside then scream off again, Kalashnikovs hanging out lackadaisically out their windows. Seventeen-year-old boys chase each other with their guns and tinker with their walkie-talkies, their own form of social messaging in a town where phone lines and internet have been cut for months. “What do you want?” one pages, using a made-up kunya, an honorific nickname invoking a son. “Freedom!” another pages back, giggling, again assigning himself a masculine kunya. Half the time, they forget to charge the batteries.
It has been only days since these men joined tens of thousands of other fighters in wiping out all but a few remnants of the Syrian army from Jabal Zawiya, a picturesque expanse of dry hills draped with fruit orchards and rocky dirt roads in central Idlib province, between Aleppo and the coast. As Assad's forces moved their heavy artillery northeast to join the battle for Aleppo, Jabal Zawiya's rebels exploited their advantage. Starting with the first day of Ramadan on July 20, they seized checkpoint after checkpoint in a push to “clean” the mountains of the army's presence. Only two weeks ago, a targeted rocket had killed the head of one battalion when it landed on his home. By the beginning of August, the checkpoint from which the army had fired was also in the hands of the rebels, said one of his recruits.
A homogeneously Sunni territory at the junction of two of the country's most strategic thoroughfares, Jabal Zawiya has gained the country's greatest degree of rebel autonomy. The area is still hemmed in by military bases along those highways guarded by hundreds of tanks, which constrain the rebels' ability to make their much-needed trips to Turkey for money, weapons, humanitarian supplies and smuggled journalists. After we made our way down to the mountains through the plains of northern Idlib on August 2, and again on the way back up the following week, we lost full days waiting to cross the highway as the army moved 50 tanks toward Aleppo and the rebels blasted IEDS to try to stop them. Each time, the rebels took out about three, but the rest moved along.
Beyond the highways, though, the opposition fighters are confidently in charge. No one seemed much concerned that the clashes would move beyond the main roads, though we could hear the IEDs booming where we sat. With movement unrestrained inside the towns, we bounced babies on our laps and took leisurely drives, stopping each time an uncle or cousin waved us down for a cup of tea. Our host received friends fleeing for a few days from nearby Saraqeb, a divided city right on the highway where government forces routinely shell. The tank movements had led to a pickup in fighting there, they said. Once we finally dashed across the highway into Jabal Zawiya, the only checkpoints were run by rebels, the only danger that those of one group wouldn't recognize the car of another. "You're on our land now," our guides informed us gleefully, hitting the gas and cranking up the car stereo to sing along to a tune about martyrdom.
Whose land it is exactly is complicated, since the land actually belongs to the men with the biggest guns. Each has his own sphere of influence, in which he commands various battalions of young men, including media, justice, and medical aid departments. Qasim, 21, who spends his days hunched over his computer watching battle videos in one of the satellite-connected media centers, described how one leader, Jamal Maarouf, who once hunted and worked in construction, became an idol for the young men of the mountains last summer when he became one of the first to pick up weapons against the army. Maarouf now commands the Martyrs of Syria Battalions, 7,000 men strong. Whereas in cities like Saraqeb, still under fire, civilian councils have taken over the administration of basic municipal services, men like Maarouf run everything from military strategy to humanitarian relief in Jabal Zawiya.
His and the three other main rebel groups operating in the area now squat in its schools and municipal buildings, the only guardians of civic life. Maarouf's men keep their RPGs and prisoners locked up under the blackboards of the local school, though they say they're hoping to re-open it to students in September. To the east, grizzly Islamist Abo Issa runs the equally strong Squr al-Sham (Levant Falcons) Brigade out of his town hall, with ammunition strapped around his shoulders and a tank he captured from the army parked out front. An Ahrar al-Sham group, seemingly a small offshoot of an Islamist brigade prominent in northern Idlib, keeps its anti-aircraft pickup truck parked in a residential alleyway. The ragtag Qisas (Equal Retaliation) Brigade of the Bakran brothers in the north is more boyish than fearsome, but rabidly territorial about controlling public funds.
That leaves little role for anyone but the rebels to have a say in the direction the communities are heading. The men laughed when we asked to see mokhtars, or mayors, whom they'd apparently chased out of town months earlier. “They were all part of the regime,” said Ali Bakran. In the week we spent darting in and out of public buildings, we didn't see a single civilian enter any of them. In practice, this meant not a single woman entered, since, as Bakran put it, “all the men here are now carrying weapons.” With no divisions for civilian and military administration, funds for bread, medicine, and any other of the communities' basic needs are in their charge, competing with demands for badly needed weapons. When an opposition figure traveling in our party suggested that a particularly sharp matriarch might do well keeping track of food distribution, her husband met the idea with derision, assuring us her role was in her own home.
Though they operate independently and their fight against the government remains vastly asymmetrical, the groups are increasing their coordination. Their recent victories have convinced these men's young recruits that they are all but invincible. They point to the groups' handful of tanks and anti-aircraft guns as protection from the regime's air power, though they appear only to possess heavy machine guns that can deter government aircraft, not missiles that can destroy them. “It's perfectly safe. The army can't come here anymore,” each of the Bakrans told us over and over, with cocky smiles. “The only thing we fear are rockets, which can be fired from far beyond Jabal Zawiya. But those are in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo right now.” As two fighters were laughing off threats one night after the electricity cut, a shell fired from one of the few remaining army checkpoints landed in the same village, killing a woman in her home.
With the advantage in Jabal Zawiya, these men say they have designs to fashion all of Idlib province into a buffer zone where leaders and supplies can gather with easy access to the Turkish border. If successful, the move would also sever Aleppo, the country's main commercial hub, from Assad's Alawi heartland on the coast. Though they lack central command, and dismiss the “corrupt” Free Syrian Army leadership in Turkey, the leaders of most of the major groups come together for coordination meetings once every 10 days under the auspices of the recently formed Idlib Military Council. There, they make decisions on their own terms. The men of Jabal Zawiya are “building our future as our grandfathers did,” explained Abo Issa. As revolutionaries, he added, “we will not work with anyone who puts conditions on us.”
Katie Paul is a freelance journalist covering Syria. She did a Fulbright fellowship on the impact of web connectivity among young people in Syria and has written for Human Rights Watch, Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @bupkispaulie