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It must be the most beautiful front line in the world. Turn right at the ancient city of Qatna, drive east for 40 miles and you’ll come to a village called Telwared, the “Hill of Roses”. There are fields of yellow flowers, sheep and cattle and almond orchards and an old T-62 tank and then a series of largely empty, slightly sinister two-storey houses and a row of gentle hills to the south. That’s where Isis holds its ground, an ideology quite divorced from all this beauty and bright sky and sunlight.
They’re just the other side of the low mountain range to the south which stretches all the way across to Palmyra. But it’s difficult to shrug off the lethargy. Surely the old shepherd sitting with his back to the road, two cows tethered beside him, isn’t worried about the war. Can the children playing with their mother behind a red-painted house have the slightest idea why there’s a Syrian army checkpoint down the road at Jibl Jarrah, the very last bit of territory before the forward troops of the shrinking Isis caliphate?
The great geopolitical battles in Iraq seem far away until you notice the contrails sweeping the skies far above Jibl Jarrah and the military map in the local company headquarters which depicts three bleak grey and black circles to the right. “South al-Mushairfeh, east Habra, west Habra” are written in them. Isis holds these villages to this day.
On the highway driving out here, there were Russian military engineering convoys on the Palmyra run, heavy armoured vehicles between each truck, soldiers with cloth webbing draped from their helmets to their chins. Some of them wear Ray-Bans and you remember that this is also a European war, that these are Putin’s men, their equipment gleaming, their heavy machine guns pointed up the road.
You’d think the crusty Syrian colonel round the corner, billeted in an ancient shrine, would be watching the television news of the fighting for Mosul, the suicide bomb attacks on his Iraqi brother soldiers far to the east. Nothing of the sort. Isis mortared Jibl Jarrah a few hours ago. They send in artillery rounds each night. When their men captured and held the village for six hours on 21 January, the colonel managed to evacuate every civilian safely – but it cost the lives of three soldiers, another 12 in the neighbouring village of Mesaudia, and six members of the local “national guard” militia.
So much for the hill of roses. The colonel saw one of the Isis men who was captured on the road. “They send in Syrians first and then foreigners behind them,” he said. “Chechens and Afghans. He was a short man, blond-haired, about 19 or 20. He said he was from the village of Ankalhawa. He said they wanted to attack with waves of fighters. Fifteen at first, then maybe 200. They failed. Isis couldn’t operate here if they didn’t have Syrians with them. All of us grew up loving our homeland, but they’ve played on the sectarian question to turn these people into extremists.
“We never thought a Syrian would turn a gun against another Syrian but the Arab nations – Qatar, Saudi Arabia – they give them the money and ideology. This situation is very strange to us.”
As the colonel says repeatedly, most of the Isis men on the other side of these gentle hills are clearly not Syrians. Repeatedly, Syrian intelligence officers monitoring their radio chat find themselves listening to Dari (the Afghan version of Persian) and Chechen, which is meaningless to them.
The Syrian soldiers agree that they all talk about the motivation of these strange men. The colonel saw a lot of prisoners in Idlib. “I arrested a lot of Syrian fighters. Before this, I thought they were forced to fight; but when they were questioned, they said they believed in what they did.”
Deceptive, too, are the quiet roads leading west from Jibl Jarrah. You would never imagine that the blasted old building at Alamod was a school targeted by a suicide bomber two years ago. Thirty children were killed, all Shia Muslims, four from one family, the killer a Sunni Muslim. In Mukharam, there’s a pulverised building in the corner of the square, where another Sunni man, an Islamic student well known in the village, blew himself up among his neighbours just four months ago, wearing a suicide belt, waiting till market day to kill as many as possible.
No wonder the colonel, puffing away on his Armenian cigarettes – they say that Akhtamar cigarettes have to be smoked to be believed – is so puzzled. This web of villages, right up to the front line, has for years been a blaze of mixed religion so typical of Syria; Christians, Shiites, Alawites, Sunnis. Many people here are Sunni Circassians and the locals insist their white complexion comes from Russia generations ago. And looking at the young Russian soldiers on their Palmyra convoys, you can see a faint similarity.
The colonel kept shaking his head. “We see Isis as kind of monsters,” he said. “Even traditional enemies are more honest than these people. Killing pregnant women. Why would anyone do such a terrible thing? At least Israel makes normal, typical war.” The colonel wasn’t being kind to Syria’s traditional enemy. He merely hasn’t fathomed what lies behind Isis and he’s too far from Mosul to work out if his monsters are in their death throes.
But like as not – if any of them can get out of Mosul, or if the Iraqi army and Americans let them – Isis will move across to the lands east of Homs and try another attack on this all too beautiful front line.