C.J. Chivers: Rhymes With Shivers (‘Death Highway’ Edition)

From our Late to the (Syrian Rebel) Party desk

New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers produces boots-on-the-ground reporting as well as any journalist of his generation, and his Friday piece is no exception.

0315-ONE-BATTLE-articleLargeIn Syrian Clash Over ‘Death Highway,’ a Bitterly Personal War

HEESH, Syria — The Islamic fighters peered through rifle scopes and machine-gun sights at the remains of a Syrian military convoy disabled on the highway several hundred yards away. They were peppering President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers with gunfire, trying to prevent their escape.

“Here are the heroes and mujahedeen of the Shield of Mohammed, peace be upon him,” one fighter said softly as others opened fire.

The Syrian Army answered the rebels’ gunfire. Tanks fired into the village from one direction, artillery from another. The ground shook. Smoke and dust rose. Defenseless against the exploding artillery rounds, the rebels kept firing, and were not driven off.

That’s the text. Here’s the subtext: “It is a bitterly personal war, in which Islamic and more secular fighters share an immediate goal: to protect their own families, an ambition they accuse the West of not adequately supporting.”

Regardless, the rebels fight on:

The battle at Heesh — for one of the few roads in the Idlib region that Mr. Assad’s forces still risk using — is, as one fighter described it, a contest for a “death highway” in which one side has a full conventional arsenal and the other is armed with faith as much as weapons. It captures part of the war in a microcosm . . .

Blast by blast, what is left of Heesh is being cracked into rubble. Its people have moved away.

But “[t]he fighters remain, hoping that by cutting off supplies to the army checkpoints north of Heesh they will cause the soldiers there to run low on ammunition, and ultimately to abandon them.”

And the denouement:

As the two sides traded fire, and explosions shook the town, the Islamic fighters encouraged one another.

Zahir Darwish, Soqour al-Sham’s military commander, was unmistakably pleased. “Do you know why my men smile like this in such a situation?” he asked.

“Out of my experience in 18 months of constant battles and fighting, I have seen that bravery arrives at a specific point in some fighters, for those who are well connected to God,” he said. “They believe in their fates, and that everything comes from God.”

Many walked upright at the firing line, startling only slightly when tank rounds slammed against buildings, or artillery rounds screamed in and exploded nearby. On this day, the highway here was cut. The army was stopped. “God is the greatest!” the men shouted, again and again, as the shells landed all around.

Damn. If Chivers isn’t the best war correspondent around, he’ll do until someone else (maybe NBC’s Richard Engel) comes along.

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