ATARIB, Syria (Reuters) - Away from the frontlines, volunteers are helping in the war against President Bashar al-Assad by cooking, filling sandbags, collecting old tyres and digging trenches, aiming to help ward off his assault on northwestern Syria.
It is part of the civilian effort to help defend the last major rebel stronghold from Assad and his Russian allies who have been pounding it for weeks.
Abu Abdo, 51, says he is playing his part by collecting old tyres to be burned by fighters to create a smoke screen from hostile warplanes.
“We go to places where tyres are repaired, collect them and take them to the fighters,” said Abu Abdo, 51, as he piled tyres into the back of a truck with the help of his sons in the town of Salqin.
“These tyres have no value but protect (the fighters) and keep the enemy busy,” said Abu Abdo, as two of sons sat atop the pile of tyres in the back of the truck.
In recent years, Assad’s opponents have poured into northwestern Syria from other parts of Syria that have been taken from rebels. The region, which includes Idlib province and parts of neighbouring provinces, has an estimated 3 million inhabitants, about half of whom had already fled fighting elsewhere according to the United Nations.
With nowhere else for these people to flee, many have a stake in fending off the attack on the northwest.
To this end, activists and religious leaders launched a campaign in May called “fire an arrow with them”.
Volunteers at work in a kitchen in the town of Atarib are preparing 2,000 meals a day for fighters as part of the campaign. Yellow rice is spooned from large vats into polystyrene trays and lentil soup is poured into bags ready for delivery to fighters.
“The car leaves from here to the frontlines under air strikes and surveillance sometimes,” said a 40-year-old man at work in the kitchen who gave his name as Abu Wael. “God willing we continue so these meals reach the fighters.”
At a nearby quarry, sacks that once contained rice were being filled with grit for use as sandbag defences.
“We are filling according to the demand of the frontline. The command centre, for example, requests 200 bags or 1,000 bags for one position,” said Khaled al-Jamal, 26, at work with a group of other volunteers.
He finished his high school education but was unable to register at university once the war began in 2011. He hopes his effort will help fighters so “all their effort is directed at repelling the regime”.
In Salqin, men use shovels, pick axes and pneumatic drills to dig a trench in an olive grove as part of another civilian campaign, this one called “the Popular Resistance Battalions”.
A long way from the frontline, Yehya al-Sheikh, 38, says the trench he is digging with others will provide protection from air strikes for a family living nearby.
“We came to dig trenches to defend ourselves and our people and to support our Mujahideen brothers against Bashar al-Assad.”
Some 300,000 people in the northwest have been uprooted since late April and local sources have reported that hundreds of civilians including women and children have been killed, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.
The territory is largely controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group representing the latest incarnation of the Nusra Front, formerly al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, though groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army also have a presence.
The Syrian government, which has vowed to recover “every inch” of Syria, says it is responding to attacks by al Qaeda-linked jihadists.
Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut, editing by Deepa Babington