ARIHA, Syria – The Syrian army checkpoints around the northern town of Ariha are in such a dangerous spot that even food for the soldiers is brought in by tank.
The soldiers at one position outside Ariha say they have not ventured inside the town for months, fearing for their safety in an area where hostility to President Bashar al-Assad has reached boiling point.
“We just stay here,” one soldier told reporters who visited Idlib this week. “Today there was an attack on the checkpoints around us – if we go inside Ariha they will slice us up”.
Ariha is in Idlib province, a hotbed for an uprising against Assad’s rule that broke out in March last year.
It has also borne the brunt of a military crackdown on the revolt, which began with peaceful protests but developed into an armed insurgency, with activists reporting shelling of towns, mass arrests and widespread killing by security forces.
The violence by security forces has fueled resentment among many residents even if some of them are also disenchanted by the militarization of the opposition movement.
“When the first drop of blood was spilt the regime lost,” said Mahmoud, a 29-year-old resident of Idlib city.
“We are a very close society and in cities and towns we know each other…So with every martyr falling, more people will go out to the street and there is no way to bring them back.”
SOLDIERS ON ALERT
Soldiers were on high alert on Tuesday evening when a group of United Nations officers, trying to monitor a ceasefire which has been violated by both government forces and rebels, approached Idlib.
As their convoy left the highway to enter the city, two armored vehicles filled with soldiers arrived as escort. There were three checkpoints on the road, each manned by dozens of soldiers and approached by a single lane lined by sand barriers.
When the convoy stopped, soldiers jumped out the vehicle and took up defensive positions, scanning the fields on either side watching for gunmen.
In the city itself, gunfire could be heard almost constantly on Tuesday night and at least one explosion shook buildings.
Provincial governor Yasser al-Shoufi blamed the violence on “external incitement”, a reference to neighboring Turkey which shares a border with Idlib and harbors Free Syrian Army rebels carrying out attacks inside Syria.
“If it were not for the external provocation that is coming to us from across the border the situation in Syria would have been fine,” he said.
Schools and shops were open as usual in Idlib on Tuesday and Wednesday. But signs of recent attacks and clashes were visible. Bullet holes scarred some buildings and concrete barriers blocked roads leading to administrative offices.
At the Carlton Hotel, which was shut last summer after the uprising began but reopened to host U.N. monitors, shattered windows and a badly damaged restaurant hall were evidence of shooting which soldiers said happened every night.
“We are fighting gunmen who are destroying the country,” said a soldier in the hotel who gave his name as Asaad. “We do not know what they want – I am a soldier doing my job protecting my country”.
ARMY IS KILLING US
In the middle of the road south from Idlib on Wednesday were the scorched remains of a tank, destroyed in the 24 hours since journalists passed the same spot on Tuesday. There appeared to be no soldiers in a military post on a bridge overlooking the burnt out wreckage.
But in the villages on Idlib’s outskirts, residents vented their rage less than one kilometer (half a mile) from an army checkpoint.
“The army still comes and fires at us, they are killing us,” said a resident called Hilal. “Yes, since the observers arrived it has declined, but it is still happening.”
Another person shouted: “If we are killed a million times, we will not be silenced. Anyone who kills our children cannot be our president”.
A 10-year-old boy said soldiers raided his house two weeks ago.
“One of them was carrying a gun and asked me if my father had a one like it, I said no. So they took my computer.”
The soldiers said daily clashes took place with gunmen that sometimes turned into pitched battles. They often had to call for reinforcements.
“The city of Idlib is safe,” said one. “But all of the surrounding areas are boiling.”
Most soldiers were from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor and the Mediterranean coast, while residents said at least some of the fighters in the countryside around Idlib were foreigners – a point which Syrian authorities have repeatedly stressed as part of their argument that they face a foreign-backed insurgency rather than domestic discontent.
“There are Libyans fighting here for sure. We know that and everybody in the city knows that,” said Issam, who said he backed the revolt but was unhappy that it was more militarized.
“I could leave to Aleppo, but if I leave the security will burn my house. They are doing that to those who leave,” he said.