The Russian Mi-24 helicopter gunship, just visible in the dawn haze, performed large sedate circles high above the Syrian border village of Jusiyah, seemingly confident that it faced no threat from the Free Syrian Army fighters hidden below.
As it flew over the village again, a powerful blast among the buildings sent up a cloud of black smoke and a shockwave that thumped across the border into Lebanon and over the flat fields and orchards of Masharih al-Qaa to the south.
“The helicopters are dropping barrels filled with TNT,” says Ismael, a Lebanese volunteer with the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade, a component of the larger Omar Farouq Brigade, one of the leading FSA units. “We lost 10 of our men yesterday when one of those explosive barrels landed on a fighting position.”
A bitterly fought battle for the Syrian town of Jusiyah in the past week has starkly underlined the challenges facing the armed Syrian opposition against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Nineteen months into the confrontation, the rebel forces have no way to counter the regime’s military superiority, particularly its artillery and air power, which allow it to pound the opposition into submission.
“We need anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles. That’s all. With those, we can win this war,” says Hussein, a middle-aged Syrian from Jusiyah who was an irrigation engineer before joining the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade.
Jusiyah’s location on the border with Lebanon has lent it some strategic importance for the FSA because it has allowed militants to enter and exit Syria with relative ease. Slipping into Syria via Jusiyah allows access to the town of Qusayr, five miles north of the border, and from Qusayr, militants can reach Homs, Syria’s third largest city where fierce battles between the Syrian army and the opposition are currently being waged.
Without the Jusiyah route, the militants and refugees are forced to endure a lengthy march through the rugged, treeless mountains to the east of Masharih al-Qaa to reach the relative safety of Lebanon.
“It will be a setback if we lose Jusiyah to the regime. If we control Jusiyah, we can reach Qusayr and if we can reach Qusayr, we can reach Homs,” said Hussein. “We are willing to sacrifice 40 men a day to hold Jusiyah.”
Two days ago, the FSA appeared to have lost control of Jusiyah. But fighting escalated again today, with shells falling on Masharih al-Qaaa, suggesting that the Jusiyah Martyrs' Brigade is determined to cling on to the village.
The northern Lebanese town of Masharih al-Qaa has become a de facto safe haven for the FSA engaged in daily battles against the Syrian regime across the border. Hussein, Ismael and their colleagues in the Jusiyah Martyrs’ Brigade were resting from the fighting in a large tent erected beside a small farmhouse a mile from the border and surrounded by fields of cabbage, lentils, and potatoes.
The Lebanese authorities generally have turned a blind eye to the FSA activities here. In return, the FSA militants say that they leave their weapons behind before crossing the border and do not launch attacks from here against Syrian troops.
As the sun sank behind the towering mountains to the west, a generator clattered into action, providing some light inside the tent and power for a small television that flickered images of news updates on the war in Syria. The generator was not so loud, however, that it drowned out the crump of artillery shelling just across the border.
During the night, the fighters from the Jusiyah Martyrs Brigade tried to snatch a few hours sleep in the tent, lying on foam mattresses on the floor and ignoring the distant artillery fire. Occasionally, ringing cell phones informed the fighters that some more of their colleagues, friends, or family were attempting to slip into Lebanon through the mountains just to the east.
“It seems everyone’s leaving the area tonight,” says one fighter donning a jacket and heading outside.
Bursts of heavy machine gun fire from a Syrian army position on the border a mile away to the east punctured the night air. Red dots of tracer flew slowly through the darkness as the Syrian soldiers attempted to intercept militants and refugees scrambling across the adjacent barren mountain slopes in a dash for the cover of the orchards in Masharih al-Qaa.
By dawn, an estimated 500 to 700 people had escaped Jusiyah overnight. A group of a dozen women and small children sat wide-eyed with exhaustion on the floor of a small room, having walked in the darkness for 10 hours.
“It was a very hard journey. We had to walk and then stop for cover to avoid the machine gun fire,” says Abu Ahmad, a thickly bearded Lebanese militant who had accompanied his wife, two children, and mother from Jusiyah. “I had to get them out. But my father is still in Jusiyah. He refused to leave.”
Jusiyah and several other villages just inside Syria are populated by Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites.
His cellphone rang. A friend on the line told Abu Ahmad that his group was lost somewhere on the border.
“Are you near the peach trees or the plum trees?” Abu Ahmad asks.
“I don’t know, wait,” says a tinny voice over the phone’s loudspeaker. “I think the plum trees.”
“Okay, we are coming to get you,” Abu Ahmad said.
“Please bring some water with you. We haven’t had any since yesterday,” the voice replied.