The road to Sinjar passes through dozens of bleak, damp, wrecked villages. Their houses have crumpled under shellfire, the gateways lie in the street, a mosque sprawls half way across a road, its silver metal crescent resting on its side on the pavement. So swiftly have the Islamist al-Nusra group retreated through the fog and rain that the Syrian army has not had time to erase their equally bleak graffiti. “This country will not be ruled except by the Quran and the sharia law,” says one.
Oh yes, it will. Syrian military trucks, ankle deep in mud, some of them new Russian models, are grinding through the murk with thousands of boxes of new artillery ammunition, green oblong boxes and bright wooden crates of mortar rounds. Some arrive packed in container lorries, and drenched Syrian troops heave them to pick-up trucks and jeeps. The Independent is the first foreign media to visit the front line in Idlib province. The air pressure changes and a big gun starts banging off shells from two streets away.
You notice the small things at times like this. A soldier, muffled from the cold by a blanket round his head, picks his way through the wet garbage of the street by what was Sinjar railway station, and shakes his head, and bangs the flat of his hand against his left ear as the gun fires. Two of his comrades warm their hands by a fire in which pieces of furniture – a bedroom cupboard door, with thin-painted yellow patterns on the wood – are smouldering.