04/13/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Losing Faith in the West, Finding it in Islam -- the New Face of Syria's Civil War

The Orontes River valley is known as "the breadbasket of Syria." Its lush, fertile plains stretch some 30 miles through rural Idlib and Hama provinces, fed by a river whose banks have been the peaceful home to the country's range of religions and ethnicities for generations.

But today, the Orontes river divides two warring sides, and marks a new sectarian frontline: On the western side of the valley lies a string of villages that are home to members of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, all fiercely loyal to him and his regime. Facing them on the eastern side of the valley are Sunni villages, now in the hands of rebel fighters who are determined to bring down the fall of Assad and his regime.

Looking out across the valley one late summer's evening last year, it was hard to imagine how this beautiful landscape could be the scene of a sectarian civil war, a microcosm of a nation cleaving apart along religious and ethnic lines as it confronts a bleak, Balkan-style future.

For five weeks last year, while filming a documentary for the PBS series FRONTLINE and the UK's Channel 4, I lived on both sides of the Orontes River valley, staying in the homes of both Alawite loyalists and soldiers on one side, and Sunni rebels and internal refugees on the other. Almost daily, fighting flared between the two sides. While the West fixates on the presence of foreign fighters and Islamic extremists in Syria, or tries to decide whether to arm the rebels or not, ordinary Syrians here are deciding for themselves what kind of nation will emerge from the rubble. And none of it bodes well for the future.

"I grew up in this valley," says Ahmad, a 20-year-old rebel fighter who recently defected from the regime's police force to return home and join the Free Syrian Army. "I used to mix with the Alawites a lot, we were like brothers," he says, clutching the AK-47 that is his prized possession and now never leaves his side. "If the Alawites don't want to fight us, then we will solve this problem peacefully. But if they want to confront us, then we will respond -- with deadly force."

For decades, talking openly like this in Syria was almost unthinkable: the threat of violence towards one's countrymen is one thing. But referring to religious or ethnic differences was almost taboo in a nation that prided itself on its cultural diversity and regarded itself as blind to religious or ethnic differences, in public at least. Today, ordinary Syrians are increasingly defining themselves and others in terms of their ethnic or religious identity. In rebel villages along the Sunni side of the valley, the mosques are full, people talk openly of what "we Sunnis" feel, and you're hard pressed to find a man under 30 who isn't sporting a beard or a weapon, or both.

"The regime forced me to shave my beard every day," says Ahmad when asked about the beard he's started to grow, slowly turning him into the very image of the Islamic fighter. "But I wanted to change my look when fighting with the rebels. I'm no Salafist," he laughs. "My favorite singers are George Michael and Enrique Iglesias!"

His mum also laughs off Ahmad's new look. "It's just a fashion -- it's not really him." But images of armed, bearded fighters like Ahmad worry many people -- not just foreign governments debating whether to arm these rebels. Just a few miles from Ahmad's village are regime soldiers and Alawite communities that are convinced that their neighbours have been infiltrated by Al Qaida and foreign, Islamic extremists.

Within view of Ahmad's village on the other side of the valley is a line of government checkpoints, all manned by regime soldiers drafted in to hold the frontline against what they call the "armed gangs" and "terrorists" just a few miles away. One of the regime bases closest to Ahmad's village is commanded by Lieutenant Ali Ghazi, a softly spoken Alawite soldier who has been stationed here since May 2012 when tensions rose between the two communities.

"It breaks my heart," says Ali as he looks out across the untended fields of rotting crops. Until a few months ago, the land here was farmed by both Sunnis and Alawites, neighbors who had lived together peacefully for generations. Now, the fields form a no man's land separating two warring sides. "I'll feel very sad if the country stays like this," says Ali from a gun position that looks directly towards Ahmad's village. "I wish we could go back to the way it was, to the way it used to be."

Watch "God, Syria, Bashar and Nothing Else" on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Sunni villages may be within range of Ali's rifle, but like the platoon he commands, Ali is unable to travel there or speak to the residents. Since the beginning of what began as a peaceful revolution, Bashar al-Assad has justified all his brutal crackdowns with the repeated line that the uprising is driven by armed gangs and Islamic terrorists, not disaffected Syrians. And so, reliant on government propaganda and TV stations for news, Lt Ali and his soldiers seem convinced that the Sunni villages nearby have been infiltrated by Islamic extremists.

"They're planning to wipe us out," says Alawite villager Mohammed Mahmoud. Sat in the remains of his home that was burned out by Sunni rebels last year, he is adamant that he is locked in a fight to the death. "They don't even think of us as human," he says. "They call our sect Akbiya ["worms"] that should live underground. There can be no negotiating with this extremist ideology -- you either win, or you die."

Mohammed is one of a group of Alawite fighters that make up a "Popular Committee," a recently introduced term for the groups of pro-Assad militia that operate with near impunity in Alawite regions. Most Sunnis know them by a different name -- the "Shabiha." Mohammed openly boasts of shooting dead a Sunni fighter during recent clashes. "His blood was all over the door," he says with a broad, satisfied smile.

And so now the valley is now divided, and the violence between the two sides is escalating by the day.

The Alawite villages protected by Lt Ali Ghazi receive sporadic bursts of inaccurate mortar fire from rebels on the Sunni side of the valley, purportedly targeting regime bases, but whose shells are known to often land in civilian areas. I also saw evidence of roadside bombs and IEDs in the roads around the villages.

But such attacks are incomparable with the onslaught being inflicted by regime forces on the rebel villages on the other side of the valley. Almost every day those areas receive mortars and shell fire from government positions, with devastating results.

On one of my first days living on the rebel side, a series of mortars landed in the village I was staying in, and the crowd that gathered outside the makeshift hospital immediately urged me to film what had happened. Inside the rudimentary "emergency room," an elderly man lay gasping on a metal gurney, his right leg blown off below the knee. The power to the hospital was cut, and the only light came from an open window. In the room next door, two other men had been left in the dark to die, and were groaning their last words. Seconds later, I was taken outside to film a lorry that had pulled up carrying the three bodies of members of the same family that had been killed instantly in the same attack. A surviving relative was sitting amongst the corpses, covered in blood and begging the crowd to fetch a doctor to treat them. "They're dead, I swear," shouted a man from the crowd.

All these dead and dying men had fled to these rural areas from the more intense fighting in the nearby city of Ma'arat al-Nu'man. They thought these villages would be safer.

Every day brought its own horrors. I saw a dead child held aloft on a piece of cardboard as he was carried to his grave in a rapidly growing rural cemetery. At night, I'd watch rockets being fired from the regime base at Qalaat Al Madiq about 10 miles away, the rockets' orange flames arcing over me like some slow firework before disappearing with a crunch into the villages further north. Old men would gather and watch the display, muttering to themselves and trying to guess which village was the target.

I was woken at night by the distant pop of a mortar being launched, and waited the agonising 20 or 30 seconds to see how close it would land. Once I caught myself nervously laughing as I pulled a blanket over my head as I heard the terrifying whistle as a mortar came in to land within metres of where I was sleeping. What good, I wondered, was a blanket against a mortar?

There was never any warning. Once, while filming a quiet market in the village of Kafrnabul, a mortar crashed into a busy street just 40 metres from where I was filming. Near the end of my stay, I was about to interview a senior rebel commander and his lieutenants in the village of Al Bara when the house shook as a regime jet roared low overhead. We all ran to the door to try and catch a glimpse of it, but as I reached the doorway I was blown to the ground by a massive blast: The jet had dropped a bomb that had landed 300 metres away, flattening a block of civilian homes. As shocked and bloodied women and children emerged from the rubble, local men dug furiously with bare hands to try and dig out those that were buried. And then the jet returned, circling above us before swooping in and dropping another bomb on the other side of the village. Two men who were dragging what little remained of a woman killed in the blast dropped the corpse and ran.

And in amongst the aftermath of the air strikes, I saw my new friend Ahmad, the young bearded fighter, holding his phone in front of him and filming the carnage. "We are in the village of Al Bara," he was saying, "and it is the third day of Eid, and there are many martyrs under the rubble...". He was talking to his phone, offering a kind of commentary to explain the scene in the hope that someone might take notice of his footage on YouTube.

"What can one feel, to see so many bodies?" said Ahmad when I asked him how he felt that day. "We can do nothing about it -- no one is supporting us, and no one will." And then, after a pause, "There is no power, except that which comes from God."

Three days later, Ahmad was injured by another air strike. Within two months, he was listing Osama bin Laden as one of his "interests" on Facebook, and has more recently begun posting pictures of himself reading the Koran while dressed in military fatigues emblazoned with the badge of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamic faction linked to al Queda.

Ahmad is certainly not alone in his slow but steady radicalization. As the death toll mounts and the West struggles to decide what to do, ordinary Syrians like Ahmad are looking to other powers to give them the weapons or simply the courage they crave. Perhaps after two years, Bashar al-Assad is finally getting the war he always wanted.

Olly Lambert's documentary on Syria, a Quicksilver Media production for WGBH/FRONTLINE and Channel 4, will be broadcast as Syria: Across the Lines on Channel 4 in the U.K. at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17th. FRONTLINE recently aired the film as Syria Behind the Lines. U.S. viewers can stream the film in full on FRONTLINE's website.