Wars are dodgy things to predict. And the vast plain below the battlefield of Idlib – not to mention the Syrian artillery battery of four 130mm guns on the heights of Mount Akrad pointing at the hot fields and deserted villages held by the Islamists to the east – bake under the white sun in silence. In the dank tributary canals of the river below, herds of black-and-white cows stand beneath the trees. A little towards the main road, Syrian soldiers rest under the bushes. A clutch of T-72 tanks are parked, hull down in the earth, beneath the branches.
Is that it, I ask myself, as I drive north towards the much-signposted town of Jisr al-Chougour? It’s still in the hands of Nusrah, but only 10 miles away – you grow used to wars in which the road signs constantly point you to locations on the wrong side of front lines – and the idea that this ancient countryside with its old stone houses and the green drift of the Orontes is about to become the site of the last and final battle of the Syrian war seems strangely out of place.
Are the Syrians going to pour forth from the basin of the Orontes – Strabo and Dionysus’s Orontes, the Asi river in Arabic – and lay waste to the province of Idlib which has long been the dumping ground for Syria’s enemies, the Nusrah fighters and Isis and the other jihadis who refused to give up when they evacuated the big Syrian cities?
The Islamists sent a silver-painted drone over the Syrian lines a few hours before I arrived, brought down by rifle fire. Painted on the wing by Nusrah were the words: “If you receive this message, there is worse to come” and it was signed “Tariq bin Ziad from Andalusia”. It had three tiny rockets strapped to the wings. Tariq bin Ziad was the 8th century Umayyad conqueror of Spanish Andalusia. Yes, history lies heavily on you in these parts.