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Their mission complete, the squad returns to its base in caves of the Jebel al-Zawiya hills. The thick limestone overhead protects against all the heaviest weapons in the army’s arsenal, while carpets on the walls keep out the damp.

This unit of the Knights of the North was formed largely by locals in the Jebel al-Zawiya area. In the uprising’s early days two years ago, Abu al-Yiman had joined peaceful protests against the regime, but when troops cracked down on the marches, he and others fled to the hills to create the brigade. It remains closely bound by family and local village ties — its political wing is headed by Abu al-Yiman’s cousin, who was a businessman in Europe. Old men from nearby villages come to their cave hideouts to pay courtesy visits and roll tobacco together, while men dance the traditional debka to revolutionary songs.

Its nonideological nature is a contrast to the well-supplied Islamic militant groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which have increased their profile in the rebel movement, often by dashing to the scene of crucial battles while local forces hold the line.

One member of the Knights, Abu Yazzan, says he tried a stint with one of the Islamic movements, the Falcons of Syria, but found it to be all, “Zeal, zeal, Islam, Islam.” Smoking was banned, and members scrupulously obeyed the rituals of the puritanical Salafi movement.

Abu Yazzan, who also spoke on condition he be identified by his nickname for security reasons, said he left to join the more easygoing Knights. Like most Syrian rebels they pray, and many grow heavy beards, but between operations they return to the rhythms of small-town life rather than hard-core religious indoctrination. No one objects to the photos of fashion models on young fighters’ laptop screensavers or motorcycle seats.

The rebels say they get most of their ammunition from capturing army positions, with a trickle brought from abroad by smugglers and supporters or distributed by the rebel Free Syrian Army’s still nascent command. Heavy infantry weapons such as wire-guided missiles or recoilless cannons, which are capable of punching through tank armor at long range, are rare.

Their fallback weapon, the handheld rocket-propelled grenade launcher, is useful for short-range urban ambushes. But it’s little use in sieges of bases such as Wadi Deif.

So for now, they hold. In the deserted buildings outside the walls of Wadi Deif, young rebels squint down the barrels of machine guns fitted through holes in the concrete, looking for any sign of movement inside the complex.

At a checkpoint on the road leading to the base, located about 500 yards from the edge of the city, a grinning Syrian rebel who goes by the nickname Ziko flips open his PKC light machine gun to show a band of 25 rounds. This is all the ammunition he has.

His comrade Mohammed Shahna points out at the highway toward Wadi Deif.

“If a tank were to come down this road, what could we do?” he asks.