‘Remember: what we do, we do for God,’ said the rebel commander to the huddle of his men at the foot of the mountain. They divided up their ammunition. They had so little — one clip’s worth was shared between two Kalashnikovs. They set off, a line of men stretching into the dark, breathing heavily on the steep slope: another night’s gruelling walk to bring them closer to Damascus.
The Free Syrian Army’s failed offensive in the capital had been the week before. Fighters poured in, only to run out of bullets. The city did not rise up to help them. Government forces hit back with tanks, artillery and jets; but time and again the regime has tried to crush the uprising using ever greater violence, only to cause a bigger reaction. And now the rebels are preparing a counter-offensive. Groups are coming in from the countryside, we were told; new weapons arriving from Turkey. Ramadan would be decisive. Ramadan would see the end of the regime.
Will it really? Zabadani, on our smugglers’ route from the Lebanese border to Damascus, was a good place to consider what the new Syria might look like. It was one of the first towns to go over to the rebels and it also has a sizeable Christian minority: 5,000, among some 30,000 Sunni Muslims.
Father Anton al Houri was a bank manager before becoming head of the Orthodox community in Zabadani. He is 80, grey-bearded, dignified, and though he was planted firmly in an ornate chair, he managed to do a good impression of sitting on the fence.
‘Do Christians in Zabadani support the revolution or the government?’
‘It’s up to every individual.’
‘What do you say in your weekly sermons about the uprising?’
‘I stick to the bible.’
‘How do you advise a young man who asks you whether to join the army or the rebels?’
‘I don’t advise him either way. I am only concerned with what he does in my church.’
And so on. Father al Houri could keep this up all day. ‘Whatever the collective opinion in Zabadani,’ said one of the priest’s helpers, ‘we will go with the group.’ That was the important thing for Father al Houri — not to become dangerously isolated from wider society in Zabadani. When I asked him about the number of Christians in the town, he declared, with a flourish: ‘You have 35,000 Muslims here and if you recount you will have 35,000 Christians. We are all one great national sect. We are one body. We live together and we die together.’
I switched off our camera and he showed me the hole in the roof of his church from government artillery. A young man with him said: ‘We Christians suffered from the same lack of freedom as everyone else. We suffered from the same corruption. Now we suffer from the same shelling.’ Zabadani supported the revolution. Therefore, tentatively, so did Father al Houri. The priest had prudently sidestepped almost every question, but he was never more cautious than when I asked him about the Salafi fighters — Islamists — in Zabadani.
There were, of course, two rival Free Army groups here. Even the (relatively) more secular group called itself the Brigade of Righteous Martyrs. But the Salafis, so it was said, wanted to declare an Islamic Emirate. ‘You are right, we did fly the black flag of al-Qa’eda,’ one told me, ‘but we took it down after a couple of days.’
They were mostly young and wore beards in the Jihadi style. ‘Eighty per cent of Syria is Muslim,’ said Ali, at 42 one of the oldest, a small, tough-looking man who had been a blacksmith. ‘We won’t accept a non-Muslim to rule over us.’ Ahmad, a 24-year-old former lawyer, disagreed. ‘We could have a Christian president here. Why not, if that is what we get in a democracy?’ That might have been what he thought I wanted to hear, but the two men continued arguing over how religious a state the new Syria should be.
That is a dispute for another day. For now, all the armed groups have a single goal, the overthrow of the regime in Damascus. That was where the group of fighters we had joined was heading. As I write this, we are only a short distance from President Assad’s palace, but the Free Army does not really hold the place. They are here because government forces are not.
Can they win? Well, the rebels still have rifles and rocket-propelled grenades while the regime has tanks. That much has not changed since the July offensive. But perhaps other more important things are shifting. For so long, the uprising was a creature of poor rural Sunnis, with the Sunni merchant class in the cities sustaining a regime under which they had prospered. But our translator’s rich Sunni relatives in the capital told him they were changing sides after experiencing shelling in their own homes. ‘We never realised now bad it was for Homs,’ one said.
And the familiar pattern of the past 18 months was asserting itself: greater regime violence reinvigorating the uprising. ‘When they started bombing Damascus, all the places I know, I decided to return home to help my people and fight Assad,’ said Yaman, a nerdy 18-year-old who had been studying computing in Jordan, where his parents had sent him for safety. He had phoned his father that morning. ‘I told him I am ready to die for this.’ Syria is a country with an 80 per cent Sunni majority. Once this becomes simply a war of Sunnis against the regime, it will be over for President Assad.
Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent reporting from Syria.