Syrian rebels, civilians brace for long civil war

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“We saw in Libya the aid that the U.S. and NATO gave and how quickly the battle went,” said fighter Abdullah Biram. “So why don’t they come here? Don’t they see all the people dying?”

One recent evening, a helicopter dropped a bomb on the village of Maaret al-Naasan in Idlib. Moments later, Bilal Haidar emerged from the stairwell he was hiding under to find that his parents, six of his siblings, his sister-in-law and three neighbors were killed when their houses collapsed.

“I have no one left,” he said the next day, standing in the rubble of his former home. “My whole family is gone.”

Civilian leaders have scrambled to fill the void left by the government’s withdrawal, setting up hospitals with operating rooms and security brigades to prevent crime.

A half-dozen Idlib towns have also set up Islamic courts under the jurisdiction of a High Judicial Council, said Salah Hablas, a Muslim cleric involved in the effort.

When asked what the most common crimes were, he read off the names of a dozen people, all wanted on suspicion of spying for the regime.

Hablas, sporting a long gray beard, dark sunglasses and a black track suit, said the courts apply a mix of Syrian and Islamic law and have sentenced one person to death. While that sentence has yet to be carried out, others have.

“If there a punishment for anyone, whether whipping or anything else, it is carried out in the public square,” he said.

The complete mobilization for war is clear in Harem, a scenic town rich with orange and persimmon groves, built around an imposing, hilltop castle near the Turkish border.

After months of clashes, rebels managed to besiege the remaining troops inside the castle. They try daily to force them out.

Sniper fire, artillery blasts and near-daily government airstrikes have sent most residents fleeing through rubble-strewn streets. Rebels squat in abandoned homes, smashing holes in walls to create passages to the front line. Between clashes, they make tea on wood fires or pick fruit, much of it about to rot because farmers can’t harvest it.

Captured regime soldiers are held in a former police station and medics treat the wounded in a farmhouse before they return to battle or are driven to hospitals.

Rows of fresh graves line a grassy, tree-covered compound abutting the barbed wire of the Turkish border.

Mohammed Quweiri, 63, pointed to the grave of his son, killed by a sniper. Next to him lay a school principal and a mosque preacher, also slain by snipers, and a rebel commander who died in an airstrike that also killed 15 others, Quweiri said.

Four graves nearby held the remains of some of the 10 people killed in another airstrike near the town’s mosque.

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