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.