20 Dec 2012

An insight into Syria’s frontline

It had taken six months of hard labour, and even the night before we still hadn’t a clue about whether we’d finally cracked it or not.

The night before I kept playing the line in my head which the Syrian Information Minister had come out with when I told him it’s bonkers that the rebels fix up journo-visits swiftly but this had taken months:

“Ah,” he giggled, “but the rebels are not very bureaucratic.”

Food Shortages

Then, next morning, just as we’re ensconced inside a vast Damascene bakery filming the issue of food shortages here, in classic British Army hurry-up-and-wait style the come-now-at-once-hurry-immediately-urgent call to the vast, blast-wall and security-cordoned world of the Defence HQ.

A genial briefing with a general and apologies that the loos aren’t yet up to scratch after the last car bomb (cordons notwithstanding) was punctuated by a squaddie literally bowed double bringing in the tea, then retreating, bowed, backwards, to the door of the vast office.

Rank means what it says around here. Nobody need pull it.

Dos and don’ts

The Blue Booklet of dos and don’ts for media with the military was distributed. It’s more concise than the MOD censorship Green Book but covers much the same reasonable grounds.

Like the Brits you can film anything except stuff that they dream of value to the opposition: troop numbers, effectiveness, weak-points and future ops. Nothing to trouble us here.

Finally we were on our way, in our own vehicle, following an army jeep out towards Daraya, a southern and much fought-over suburb of Damascus. What emerged from this rare foray was a chance to get inside the psyche here rather than fantastic sequences and operations. Those will be for another trip – insh’allah.

What motivates an army 20-plus months into a grinding civil war neither side can yet win?

How do they see their job – their struggle? How does the world look inside this still Russian-trained monumentally large army?

Well they certainly wanted to talk. One lad calmly broke off from firing his kalashnikov through a hole in the wall to declare it was all about the “Zionist conspiracy” trying to take over the country and people and countering that menace.

In truth that’s a branch line from the central vision, which we discovered from generals to grunts in the Syrian Arab Army: terrorism.

Terrorism and foreign terrorists

Put simply the key motivation is that they see themselves fighting jihadis in the same way as the British claim to be doing in Afghanistan.

Both countries claim foreign Islamic radicals threaten the homeland.

By any measure the Syrian claim is a good deal more plausible than the British “justification” for occupying Afghanistan these days. The al-Nusra front are among the most effective rebel fighters the Syrian army faces. Damascus and Washington united in designating them outlawed “terrorists”.

Several soldiers I spoke to were either puzzled or even a little affronted that the British don’t seem to get this.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Shrugged one young soldier.

There’s astonishment at the way the west has supported the rebel movement – isn’t it clear that if they don’t win you have jihadists and al-Qaeda with a seriously powerful franchise on the border of Turkey – Europe’s gate?

So goes the argument at all ranks.

Well, you say, the reason the west’s given political support at least, is that you lot kill and maim your own people and your government tortures its citizens on an industrial scale. Could that be why they don’t like you?

Again, amazement. One officer says: “Look – history will judge us. We defend our women and children. We took in the Palestinians in huge numbers; then we took in the Lebanese as well; then it was the Iraqis more recently. Oh yes – history will judge us.”

But now? The civilians being killed now? Right here, being killed in Syria by you?

There are two answers you get on this. First they will tell you: you think we’re hitting the rebels areas hard? You’ve no idea. Many an officer will depict an outfit using a fraction of the kit it claims to have.

And no – they don’t mean chemical weapons. (They laughed at Clinton, Hague and Panetta’s recent scaremongering just as much in Damascus as some did in the west).

They mean a range of conventional options still at their disposal.

Now, if you live in the eastern or southern suburbs of Damascus or central Aleppo or Homs, this will sound a long way short of convincing – but there it is.


Rather more credible is the fact that, since rebels choose to fight in populated areas, casualties will occur.

Plenty of soldiers we spoke to would criticise their government and accept readily that serious mistakes were made, that Damascus appeared paralysed by the initial wave of anti-government protest all those months back.

But these men fear the alternative. As one soldier told me, speaking of the armed opposition:

“These people tell their children to cut the head off one of our officers, a prisoner. They film this. What is the Syria these people want? What is this Syria?.”

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