Fighters now are withdrawing at the first sign that the government is preparing an offensive, he said, to spare civilians and conserve resources. They plan to focus instead on guerrilla tactics, such as roadside bombings and ambushes.
But even those efforts are facing difficulties as the supply of ammunition dries up. In many parts of Idlib, once envisioned as an internationally protected safe zone for rebels and civilians, fighters have had to suspend operations and go on the run.
As they withdraw deeper into remote mountainous terrain, away from the population centers where they rely on the sympathies of residents for food and support, some rebels are also going hungry.
Among the fighters who have recently turned up in Antakya is Abu Mustafa, 35, a staff sergeant from Idlib who asked not to be identified by his real name or his home town because he fears for the safety of his family.
He made the perilous journey across the mined border after his unit of a few dozen men ran out of ammunition during an attack on a Syrian army checkpoint last week, he said. As the unit retreated toward a mountain hideout, Abu Mustafa said, he collapsed from hunger and had to be helped to safety.
“We hadn’t eaten breakfast, and it was late afternoon,” he said in an interview at one of the many small apartments in Antakya that Syrian activists have rented. “I had no power even to walk.”
The next day, he set out for Turkey, to beg the Free Syrian Army leadership for money.
“I came to tell them we are running out of ammunition and we need fast support,” he said. “Without ammunition, all of us are facing death.”