Another group, Suqor al Ghab, the largest in Qalaat al Mudiq, claims to be aligned with the largely secular Free Syrian Army leadership in Turkey. On Monday, its forces here were overseeing the distribution of cooking gas, which is in short supply across the country because of sanctions against Assad’s government.
The ironies of the ongoing war are also on display.
“I am still drawing my government check as a teacher,” said Mousab Al Hamadee, an anti-government activist here, smiling. The Syrian government continues to provide services such as electricity and water without interruption.
“Things are going on as usual, except that it became hard for Alawites to come to work,” said Amin, the Ahrar al Sham leader, referring to members of the Shiite Muslim sect that also includes Assad. Ahrar al Sham members, as Salafis, follow Sunni Islam. Amind said Alawites now fear retaliation from Sunnis for the support in Alawite villages for pro-government militiamen known locally as Shabiha.
On the outskirts of Qalaat al Mudiq, fighters from Ahrar al Sham lazily manned a checkpoint on the main road north to the city of Jisr al Shughour, whose outskirts are also outside of government control. Rebels who’d crossed the Turkish border en route to Jisr Al Shughour last week said that the army is entirely absent from the area. The army holds the center of Idlib, the largest city in northwestern Syria, but the edges of the city and the surrounding areas belong to the rebels.
To the west of the checkpoint, nestled in the foothills of Latakia Mountain, the Free Syrian Army’s control becomes more tenuous, as the Sunni-dominated area gives way to a string of villages populated largely by Alawites. Al Ramleh, a Sunni village to the west of here, had been largely emptied after the killings of a woman and four of her children by pro-government militiamen two weeks ago. Some months before, the nearby village of Tamana had suffered a similar fate, after a raid by the military and pro-government militiamen.
Nonetheless, the rebels here feel the momentum is strongly in their favor. They say they are getting better weapons, including armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenade rounds, as the volume of arms being smuggled into Syria from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey appears to have grown. Groups of fighters in the area are also building bombs and stockpiling small mortar rounds.
Amin said that Ahrar al Sham and the other rebel groups are making plans soon to rid the city of the army’s presence. The cease-fire with the army would end in mid-June, he said, when the wheat crop had been harvested.
“There will be a big war,” he said.