DAMASCUS Feb 20 Rebel fighters in Damascus are
disciplined, skilled and brave.
In a month on the frontline, I saw them defend a swathe of
suburbs in the Syrian capital, mount complex mass attacks,
manage logistics, treat their wounded - and die before my eyes.
But as constant, punishingly accurate, mortar, tank and
sniper fire attested, President Bashar al-Assad's soldiers on
the other side, often just a room or a grenade toss away, are
also well drilled, courageous - and much better armed.
So while the troops were unable to dislodge brigades of the
Free Syrian Army from devastated and depopulated neighbourhoods
just east of the city centre - and indeed made little effort to
do so - there seems little immediate prospect of the rebels
overrunning Assad's stronghold. The result is bloody stalemate.
I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain
just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced
back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machinegun fire.
As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a
sniper's war; men stalk their fellow man down telescopic sights,
hunting a glimpse of flesh, an eyeball peering from a crack, use
lures and decoys to draw their prey into giving themselves away.
Fighting is at such close quarters that on one occasion a
rebel patrol stumbled into an army unit inside a building; hand
grenades deafened us and shrapnel shredded plaster, a sudden
clatter of Kalashnikov cartridges and bullets coming across the
cramped space gave way in seconds to the groans of the wounded.
From Jan. 14, having reached Damascus from Lebanon by way of
undercover opposition networks, I spent four weeks in Ain Tarma,
Mleha, Zamalka, Irbin and Harasta - rebel-held areas forming a
wedge whose apex lies less than a mile to the east of the walled
Old City, with its ancient mosques, churches and bazaars.
Once bustling suburbs are all but empty of life, bar the
fighters; six months of combat, of shelling and occasional air
strikes have broken open apartment blocks to the winter winds of
the high Syrian plateau and choked the streets with rubble.
Battling the cold in woollen ski-hats or chequered keffiyeh
scarves, swathed in layers of cotton and leather jackets, a few
thousand unshaven men, many from nearby peasant villages, some
who deserted Assad's army, defend a patchwork of barricades and
strongpoints, served by cars ferrying ammunition and rations and
led by commanders using handheld radios and messenger runners.
Days are punctuated by regular halts for prayer in a
conflict, now 23 months old, that has become increasingly one
pitting Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, stiffened by Islamist
radicals, against Alawites led by Assad; they have support from
Iran, from whose Shi'ite Islam their faith is derived.
Typical of the frontline routine was an attack that a couple
of dozen men of the brigade Tahrir al-Sham - roughly "Syrian
Freedom" - mounted in Ain Tarma on Jan. 30, aiming to take over
or at least damage an army checkpoint further up the lane.
I photographed one two-man fire team crouch against a
breeze-block garden wall, about 50 metres from their target.
In blue jeans, sneakers and muffled against a morning chill,
their role was to wait for comrades to hit the army position
with rocket-propelled grenades then rake the soldiers with their
AK-47 automatic rifles as they were flushed out into the open.
There was little to make a sound in the abandoned streets.
The attackers whispered to each other under their breath.
Then two shots rang out. One of the two riflemen, heavy set
and balding, screamed in pain and collapsed back on the tarmac.
The day's assault was going wrong before it even started.
Another fighter crept over to help. Realising the casualty
was gravely hurt, two more came up and they dragged the man's
inert bulk back across the street, through a narrow gap to
Battlefield first-aid is helpless in the face of single shot
to the belly. The man died in minutes, his gut ripped through
and his blood warming the bare concrete floor. But there was no
time to mourn - the army was alerted to the squad's presence.
As the rebels regrouped, a tank shell struck the deserted
building, sending shattered concrete and dust raining down on us
and the survivors ran for cover, ready to fight another day.
Having captured large areas last July before the front lines
again congealed in the capital, the rebels stepped up attacks
last month, trying to weaken Assad's grip on the outlying
neighbourhoods surrounding the fortified centre of Damascus and
pushing across the main ring road in the neighbourhood of Jobar.
Among the boldest offensive moves I saw was an assault by
what appeared to be several hundred fighters on a sprawling army
barracks in the Irbin district. It was striking for the level of
coordination it displayed among numerous units which, lacking
uniforms, donned bandannas in bright pinks, reds and oranges to
identify their loyalties and reduce the risk of "friendly fire".
One group also brought up a Soviet-built T-72 tank to take
part in the Feb. 3 attack. Crewed by men who evidently had been
trained in the army, it may have had little ammunition, however.
The infantry skirmish for control of the barracks involved
teams of fighters, their colourful headscarves at odds with grim
faces and attempts at camouflage, stealing up to a two-metre
perimeter wall that stretched for hundreds of metres around.
On a misty morning, they tried to maintain surprise, but
once the shooting began there was no turning back, no sign these
men might recently have been fearful civilians. They poured
sustained rifle fire through gaps in the wall, tossed grenades
over it and did what they could to avoid incoming rounds.
One man poked the head of a store-window manikin, fixed on a
pole, into a hole in the perimeter, hoping a sniper could be
tempted to betray his position. It was a wise precaution. I saw
another man picked off later as he aimed through a similar gap.
By afternoon, helped by their tank, they had breached the
defences and were inside the compound, looking for enemies,
intelligence and, especially, more weapons to carry off. They
knew the position itself would be hard to hold - too big and
open and vulnerable to familiar retaliatory air strikes.
In the end, at dusk, they pulled back. One commander said
150 of the attackers had been wounded and 20 were killed, a toll
to add to the 70,000 the U.N. estimates have died in this war.
The bulk of the rebel armoury is made up of Soviet- and
Chinese-made AK-47s, similar to those among Assad's troops. Most
rebels have one, though not always many magazines of bullets. I
also saw U.S.-made M4 carbines and Austrian Steyr assault rifles
not commonly supplied to the Syrian government. Western-allied
Sunni Arab leaders in the Gulf have been arming the fighters.
Snipers use Russian Dragunovs and I also saw an American
Barrett, a heavy-calibre rifle capable of puncturing metal.
The rebels also have rocket-propelled grenades and some
heavier anti-tank weapons - at least enough to discourage their
opponents from trying to roll their armour through their lines.
One day, I watched a man fire an antiquated, probably 1960s
vintage, Soviet B-10 recoilless rifle, a heavy, bazooka-style
cannon normally mounted on a little trolley and weighing about
70 kg (150 pounds); the rebel fighter simply hefted it onto his
shoulder and blasted a heavy round somewhere down the road.
Capable of improvising, I also saw men use a shotgun to
blast a fuse-lit, home-made grenade at their enemy.
Further from the fighting lines, some vestiges of ordinary
life goes on for those civilians who have not joined the army of
refugees. Often without electricity or running water, residents
try to survive; a few shops sell vegetables, or meat kebabs.
Moving around, glimpses of normality can be startling, as I
found, turning a corner to find children playing in the street.
Other surprises were less pleasant. One Saturday, Jan. 26, I
was following a rebel patrol in Mleha, crawling from house to
house through holes smashed in walls to evade the snipers.
Just ahead, those in front emerged to find themselves face
to face with some equally astonished soldiers. Gunfire, grenades
and screams followed. I threw myself to the ground. Both sides
quickly pulled back, the wounded gasping and dragged to safety.
The battle for Damascus grinds on.
(Writing by Dominic Evans and Alastair Macdonald, editing by
Peter Millership and Giles Elgood)