War In Black And White: On The Front Lines With Syria's Army

A government soldier looks out over the renowned Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers near the Syria-Lebanon border after forc
A government soldier looks out over the renowned Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers near the Syria-Lebanon border after forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad seized the fortress on March 20, 2014 marking a significant advance in their drive to seal the Lebanese border and sever rebel supply lines. Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, a private broadcaster sympathetic to Syria's government, broadcast live images showing regime forces atop one of the castle's towers, raising the Syrian government flag. AFP PHOTO / SAM SKAINE (Photo credit should read SAM SKAINE/AFP/Getty Images)

SLONFEH, Syria -- The commander tore off a piece of bread and dipped it into a platter of hummus. Before him sat a spread of simple mountain dishes and grilled meats -- a late lunch after a long day along the northern front of Syria's war.

"I see this war in black and white, angels and devils," said the commander, who, like every military official interviewed in Syria by The Huffington Post during a visit last month, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I am on the side of white, and they are on the side of black."

The commander, who holds the rank of colonel and has been in the Syrian army for two decades, bore a calm, certain demeanor. He had the jaded aspect of an aging veteran despite only being in his forties, with a young face and soft frame. After service in Lebanon and the Kurdish town of Qamishli, the current three-year-old uprising, he said, has been his toughest fight yet, one that has left him with no doubts about its propriety.

"You can't even imagine the blackness in their minds," he said of the rebels. "That it even still exists in this world, at this time."

The northern front the commander and his troops patrol, in the rugged, craggy hills and valleys of Latakia province, is proving to be one of the war's most stubborn -- and most important.

On the rebel side, the border with Turkey, where opposition fighters draw much of their strength and resources, is often less than a dozen miles away. On the government-controlled side, the province is thick with soldiers and populated by a staunchly pro-government community composed mainly of Alawite farmers -- members of the minority religious sect that includes Syria's president, Bashar Assad. A rebel conquest of the coastal city of Latakia, which houses the country's main port, would be a huge blow to the government.

Up in the mountains, incursions happen with deadly regularity, but have so far proven difficult to sustain. Other than brief assaults, the front line, like the attitudes of combatants on both sides, has hardly budged in years.

In late March, rebels launched an operation that briefly brought them control of a significant coastal town about 25 miles from here, as well as the largely Armenian community of Kesab. The Syrian army has since retaken much of that territory.

The commander came to this area last August after another incursion, in which rebel brigades took control of a dozen frontier communities nearby, leaving a trail of death and destruction. The Syrian army recaptured that ground, too, within a month.

In the periods in between, the forces on the two sides face each other at such close proximity that the Army has grown familiar with the other side's movements and routines. The soldiers say they know the names of the local rebel leaders, and what times of day they like to pray, or eat, or fight. And when they are bored, the fighters on the two sides are close enough to yell obscenities at one another.

"Sometimes the men spend the whole night cursing each other across the valleys," the commander said earlier in the day, over tea at his regional headquarters, after a drive across the front. "'F--- you!' 'No, f--- you!'"

At certain points in the drive at the front, he had pointed to villages or towns, easily visible to the naked eye, that housed rebel fighters, and cautioned his guests to be alert to snipers.

"They shoot at us every day," he said. "And every day they kill someone -- a farmer, a villager, a soldier."

Being so close to the rebels has given the commander a good picture of his enemy, and some begrudging respect for their skill, but it has done nothing to mollify his view of their agenda. He estimates that only about a third of the opposition fighters are Syrian, and the rest, he insists, are foreign militants. (Outside estimates have put the overall proportion of foreign fighters in the opposition closer to 10 percent.)

"They are getting better at fighting," he said. "A local person from here, he doesn't fight well -- he doesn't have the experience. But when someone comes from the outside, he brings in skills from fighting many wars in the past. We're seeing this happen."

He added, "They've come a long way from home into order to kill and be killed here."

Later, at the lunch, the commander was asked whether he thought there might be Syrians among the opposition who didn't support the government, but who also didn't support terrorism -- some gray amid the black and white.

"I do think there were such people in the beginning, but they were very few in number," he said. "But for me, there is no confusion, there is total clarity -- every day I see who the enemy is, and I know what they stand for."

"I always knew the war would end up like this," he went on. "And it will take a lot more time, too. Because they have patience, and so do we."