By Dominic Evans
BINNISH, Syria (Reuters) - Ahmed Mansour was a schoolboy with dreams of becoming a lawyer when he joined the first protests at his secondary school in Syria's northern city of Aleppo.
Nine years and a failed revolution later, his studies halted by a war which has ravaged the country his whole adult life, Mansour and fellow fighters are stuck in a shrinking corner of rebel territory which still defies President Bashar al-Assad.
His journey from schoolboy demonstrator to veteran fighter, from early optimism to last-ditch defence in the towns and farmlands of Idlib province, echoes the dashed hopes of many Syrians who took to the streets to challenge authorities.
"I expected the regime to fall," Mansour said, recalling the early protests inspired by uprisings in North Africa which rapidly toppled autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and then overthrew Libya's Muammar Gaddafi after Western intervention.
"It was a corrupt sectarian regime and we had to change it," he said, flanked by fellow fighters under a canopy of olive trees, hiding them from hostile warplanes and drones in the skies of Idlib.
Starting in Damascus on March 15, 2011, and then in the southern city of Deraa a few days later, unprecedented protests against decades of rule by Assad and his father before him spread across the country.
Mansour, then 16 and studying at secondary school in Aleppo, joined 30 other students in a demonstration at their school. "We shouted 'Freedom, Freedom, Freedom'," he said. "Security forces came the next day and arrested 11 of my friends."
The students were released after mediation. They continued to protest, but in small numbers and in short 15-minute bursts. "We couldn't do it for longer because security forces came immediately and stormed the demonstration with tear gas and opened fire," he told Reuters.
The Syrian government, arguing that protesters were infiltrated by armed elements from the very start, cracked down with a determination unmatched in other countries caught up in what was briefly labelled the Arab Spring.
Despite growing casualties, protests persisted. As demonstrations became funeral marches, confrontation escalated.
Mansour joined a group to defend the demonstrators, but they could not match the strength of Assad's security forces. After several months a new force of military defectors and armed rebels was formed, the Free Syrian Army.
"I joined the Free Army with great pride because I was taking part in protecting civilians, our people, our brothers," he said. "People who were calling for the most basic rights from a tyrannical, repressive, dictatorial regime."
"THE WORLD WATCHED"
Syria was on the way to becoming the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab uprisings, but in the first years of conflict rebel confidence was high. Assad's foreign critics said his remaining days in power were numbered, and a senior U.S. State Department official described him as "a dead man walking".
Mansour and the rebels swept into Aleppo in the late summer of 2012, a city they would hold in part for another four years.
Then he was based in towns around Aleppo, surviving a stomach injury from shelling, and fighting for a variety of rebel factions which jostled for power on Syria's chaotic battlefield.
Riven by division - which worsened dramatically with the emergence of the jihadist Islamic State group in 2013 - and lacking the international support they sought, the rebels failed to capitalise on the early gains.
Islamic State "turned public opinion against us", leading the outside world to equate the rebel fighters with terrorists.
"Then the Russians came, and changed the balance," Mansour said, referring to Moscow's decisive 2015 intervention which turned the war in Assad's favour.
"They put pressure on us in Aleppo, and then they took control," he said. "They broke us in Ghouta (around Damascus) and in many areas until at last we ended up in Idlib," he said, the sound of bombardment occasionally punctuating his comments.
In some of the worst of the fighting in Aleppo's Khaldiya district, Mansour said one or two fighters died alongside him every day. Another bleak memory was an air strike which killed around 20 of his comrades sheltering in a cave in 2016.
The last few months, as Assad's Russia-backed forces launched an offensive across southern Idlib, marked the lowest point yet for rebels who once controlled large parts of Syria and almost encircled Damascus.
Three days before speaking to Reuters, Mansour's forces were driven from his hometown of Kafr Nabl by the advance of Syrian government forces, halted only by Turkish air strikes, artillery and a ceasefire deal agreed by Turkey and Russia last week.
Turkey's robust support for the rebels this month has sustained his optimism, despite the string of past military defeats, but also reinforced a sense of betrayal by other international powers.
"The world watched us and no one helped," Mansour said. "If the world had helped us, we would have toppled the regime".
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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