JABAL AL-ZAWIYA, Syria — Majid al-Khalaf is watching pictures on his cell phone. Photos of his father appear on the screen, framed in flowers and hearts. The man is living, and smiling. On the next video, though, it is hard to recognize him: He lies on a blanket, with only his feet and his face, swollen and dirty, remaining. The rest of his body is a bloodied skeleton.
who died at age 41, was a good rebel sniper. Two months ago, he was betrayed by
one of his cousins. The army captured him, killed him, and dumped his body in
the olive groves, where it was eaten by dogs. At that time, the practice was so
common that dogs had started to proliferate. Today, they have turned on the
living, moving in packs outside the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, a cluster of
33 villages in the northern governorate of Idlib. Villagers have been forced to
hunt them down in order to cull their numbers.
Behind the wheel of his Honda, Mahmoud al-Khalaf, a cousin of Abdullah, stares at the lightless night of the town of Nayrab (Mahmoud's first name has been changed for security reasons). Driving south at 60 miles per hour on the back roads of the Idlib countryside, wrecking a little bit more the car he brought all the way from Britain, he smokes his Gauloises Blondes. Village after village, he opens the windows and turns up the volume of a revolutionary song calling for the end of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The song signals his presence and political loyalties. Caught in the lights of the car, people with bright eyes wander in the electricity-less streets to buy their bread, and disappear in a cloud of dust. At times, Khalaf stops the car engine and steps out to discuss the safest route to take with the man leading the convoy. Sometimes, they would send a scout on a motorbike ahead and follow behind, carefully and silently, all lights out, for endless minutes. Three-and-a-half hours after leaving Atmeh, near the Turkish border, he finally reaches his hometown: Ibleen, a village of roughly 5,000 people in the northwest of Jabal al-Zawiya. He avoided five army checkpoints along the way.
As a no-holds-barred battle rages to the east in the city of Aleppo, the pulse of the Syrian insurrection can be taken in Jabal al-Zawiya. This complex region of hills covered in olive groves and plains entwined with narrow roads of asphalt or dirt is the homeland of Hussein Harmoush, the first officer to publicly defect in 2011, and of Riad al-Asaad, the leading figure of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Here, the insurrection is deeply rooted in the social fabric: The war these men are waging is always present, and its path is inseparable from their identities.
The FSA's lack of formal hierarchy appears to be an asset here, as it allows the citizens of the region to organize the insurgency locally and tailor their military response to their environment. Although the rebels in Jabal al-Zawiya recognize a general leadership above them -- and though they place themselves under the FSA's umbrella -- these semiautonomous groups of fighters are organized along village and family lines. That gives them several advantages: They have natural intelligence-gathering networks, and they know the terrain like the palms of their hands, having relied on back roads for supplies and secret meetings for many months. These assets, coupled with basic military skills, have allowed them to drive a far superior foe out of the towns.
Now, Khalaf needs to draw on that network to join the battle. Later that night, after he arrives in Ibleen, five young men sit with him in a small room isolated from the family's house. The glass on the door was broken by the army months ago. The fan on the ceiling is slowly balancing the light bulb, and the shadows are moving. One of the men has brought a "56" -- a Type 56, a Chinese-made Kalashnikov knockoff.