28 Jul 2012

Your guide to what the hell is going on in Syria

Syria FAQs. Your very own cut-out-and-keep guide to what the hell’s going on..

What will happen in Aleppo?

Probably what happened in Damascus – the rebels will lose.

The Syrian army has a range of heavy weapons at its disposal and completely outguns the rebels in every department of modern warfare.

By air they have utter dominance and it’s not much difference on the ground.

It took a week to clear rebel fighters from the capital. Much the same looks likely in Aleppo.

If rebels can maintain effective resupply to certain suburbs the fighting may continue in these zones much as it has in Homs, to the south.

This might just be feasible because the rebels do control large swathes of lightly populated countryside areas.

But the rebels look to be doing well on TV?

That’s because they are winning the propaganda war better than the real war.

The regime is stuck in Stasi-like cold war habits and simply bans filming with their army which means you rarely see what they are doing outside Syrian TV or occasionally Russian/Chinese TV reports.

YouTube propaganda clips of rebels destroying one tank tell you little or actively mislead about the conduct of protracted urban assaults.

So life must be hell in Aleppo right now?

Actually yes and no. It’s as if rebels are in Hammersmith, Hackney and Tottenham if you like.

But over in Chelsea they are still poring over various types of balsamic vinegar in the delicatessen even though you can hear the shelling. This is not meant to be flippant but to give you a sense of how it is.

You can sit in the Safri Hotel in Homs 10 minutes’ walk from the fighting and enjoy a meal as if nothing were going on. It depends entirely upon which part of the city you are in.

The regime is not simply shelling entire city zones and never has.

They know where the rebels are fighting and that is where the warfare takes place. The rest of the city will look and feel strikingly normal to you. Inside the fighting area of course it is terrifying and exceptionally dangerous.

But why is the Syrian army shelling its own people?

You could just as easily ask why are the rebels using the Syrian people as human shields? It’s a dirty civil war and the rebels sometimes choose to fight in residential areas.

Equally, to the best of my knowledge, the regime has not obviously posted warnings to civilians to get out with safe passage before an assault, though it was pretty obvious what was coming to Aleppo and many did indeed get out as the tanks rolled north.

So what do Syrians want?

Hard to tell. But for sure this is not Egypt – there are no Tahrir Squares or vast protests against the regime.

There is no discernible sign in any of the big cities – Homs, Aleppo and Damascus for example,that the people even wish to rise up against the regime.

The state is firmly in control- there are secret and overt police and army on pretty much every major street and junction in these cities.

The police state is alive and well. Most people appear either to support the regime still or they are hedging their bets and don’t want to confront men with AK47s as yet.

The safe bet is that regime support remains considerable across many urban areas.

So what happens?

It goes on – for a long time. Slowly the rebels get better weapons from the Saudis and Qataris and non-military help from certainly the CIA and possibly British special forces along the southern border zone in Turkey.

But this will be slow. One or more of three things have to happen for the turning point to be reached:

1. Defections from the Syrian Army become mission-critical

2. Russia turns off the arms supply tap to the regime

3. The Assad politburo decides that the game is up

And whilst there is movement towards all three – none is yet realised.

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43 reader comments

  1. hoboturkey says:

    No demonstrations ?
    Rebels were civilians, not an invasion !
    I think some of what you say is apt, but, it is you in the cafe I think.
    It never was egypt because mubarak did not inherit his country.
    I notice that those who you say are uninterested are not exactly filling the army enrollments either.
    I remember the press insisted there was a stalemate in Libya too, dont you ?

    1. fauxxbatt says:

      Auh,,, Syria’s got talent, kinda like carpet baggers or human zoombie vagabonds got skill enough to pass the bar on say like,,, dancing with the vampiracal starz, just shocking to see presidentially authorised dictatorship going on haire, don’t ya just wonder sometimes just who it might be standing closest to the middle, being trapazodial & all, exzactly just about, dead center thare, their capitol seems a little outta square, not to mention, a little “south”, unlike say Sacramento or Salem, even Olympia seems aproximitly near than say DC ha ha ha, leave the woobleing about to the moon kloown states united of the racist nationalistic variety, you stupid sl!t!

  2. lidia says:

    Do you really believe that Western media would let Syria to defend their case with video?

    Do you remember Saddam doing anything to show he had no WMD? Had it help him and Iraq?

    Come on, “rebels” are chosen by Western media as “good guys” no matter what they really do and how much they lie. That is, Western rulers made rebels and media is doing their part, as usual, as a propaganda arm of the rulers.

    It is not about puppet “rebels”, it is about their masters. Of course, GCC role as a subcontractor is noticeable too.

  3. AM says:

    That is the nearest thing to a balanced report on Syria in the UK bar none. It is telling that more or less every other news provider has been banging the anti-regime drum.

    No-one likes a tyrant, but a greater evil is the anarchy of rogue super-powers using violence to enforce faux-democracy around the world.

    1. Sean says:

      You are talking nonsense… the people of Syria want freedom – every human being desires the right to live their life in freedom – the way they wish to!!!

      This report and the comments here, strike me of a West, which wants to be able to justify is stance of apathy and placate its conscience. When we should be over there!

      1. Bob Van den Broeck says:

        why are there so many non-Syrians in the Free Syian Army? Why are Al Queda and Taliban fighters in the FSA getting weapons from NATO and the USA? Why did the ambassadors to Syria from the USA and France attend opposition rallies, speak to the crowd and incite them against Assad. It is all on youtube. You are a terrorist sympathizer obviously.

  4. Wassim says:

    A very accurate article. Thank you.

  5. Don (@Papakila) says:

    This blog is utter rubbish. I thought British journalism was better than this. Let’s begin.

    “What will happen in Aleppo?

    Probably what happened in Damascus – the rebels will lose.”

    With no clue how guerrilla wars are fought perhaps Mr. Thompson should cover curling or horse dressage. As Fidel Castro was fond of saying, the only battle a guerrilla needs to win is the last one. A hit-and-run attack can be registered as a win for the regime and still figure in as progress in the insurrection. How many times has the regime “cleared” Homs and Hama of guerrillas? And yet the #FSA continues to operate and launch attacks on the regime from these cities. Mr. Thompson’s analysis is childish.

    “But the rebels look to be doing well on TV?

    That’s because they are winning the propaganda war better than the real war.

    The regime is stuck in Stasi-like cold war habits and simply bans filming with their army….”

    Poor Syrian Army. It’s doing a wonderful job and yet has this bad habit of preventing anyone filming it. It couldn’t be, as the UN High Commissioner’s report said, that
    “(for) over four decades, the situation in the country has been characterized by gross human rights violations.” Really, Mr. Thompson, your imagination cannot stretch to the idea that maybe the Syrian Army is committing gross violations of human rights on a daily basis and that it might not want hard evidence of these crimes to reach the media? If they were “smart” (according to Thompson) and let schoolboys like him follow them around with cameras, would they really be winning “the propaganda war” which he so desperately wants to help them win? Perhaps they know how this thing works better than Sir Alex. Indeed, if he were to follow them around I doubt he could even hold the camera still to film the torture, the rapes, the summary executions that the UN has documented already in Syria.

    “But for sure this is not Egypt – there are no Tahrir Squares or vast protests against the regime.”

    Ah, Egypt. I remember Egypt. Who else does? And which side did the military take in Egypt? Did it encircle the rebellious cities and bombard them with tanks and mortars? No, it didn’t. It protected Tahrir…from the police and security forces of the Mubarak regime. That”s why the protest was able to continue and didn’t devolve into armed struggle. Moreover, as anyone who has done more than check into a hotel in Damascus and watch Syrian State TV would know, there are protests in the streets of every major city of Syria every single night. They are hidden from the view of the regime, but they are filmed, and the videos are uploaded every minute and every hour to Youtube with clear indications of date, time and location. To think Mr. Thompson doesn’t know this is to treat him like an idiot. If he is aware of this, he’s not an idiot but a shameless dissembler of the worst sort. Hanoi Jane would be ashamed. One wonders why Channel 4 would employ such a dictator’s pawn in a free newspaper. But then that may change too, just like the regime in Damascus will, making articles like this seem like fairy tales of a fantasy world which the real one has crushed.

    1. USAUK666 says:

      Shut up and go to sleep you dumb sheep

    2. truth to plwer says:

      You seem to be fixating on the “human rights violations” committed by the Syrian army…and this is the storyline in the one-note Western media…

      But who started the violence and continues to keep it going…it is the rebels…many of whom are not even Syrians…but professional mercenaries…jihadists from neighboring countries…etc…

      It was pointed out that Turky is providing a safe haven along the border for the rebels and is arming them…now even with anti-aircraft weapons…

      What is the difference with this situation and the Taliban who are taking refuge in Pakistan…in order to mount attacks in Afghanistan against the US and Nato forces…?

      The US feels justified to wage war in Pakistan to get these rebels…yet it is okay for the US and Turkey to play the role of the Taliban in Syria and set up a safe area in Turkey from which to wage a proxy war against Syria…?

      The bottom line, which the author should have mentioned iin his blog is this question…What would stop the violence…?

      The answer is the vioilence would stop tomorrow if the US and its clients (Turkey, Saudi, Qatar etc) simply stopped prosecuting this proxy war against Syria…

      The rebels are the aggressors…and they are a creation of the West…not the Syrian people…

    3. jeff_davis says:

      You are an utter child. When confronted with the truth, throws a tantrum. Saturated in the Kool-aid of “what I want to believe.”

    4. Don (@Papakila) says:

      So the rebels did not lose Aleppo as Alex Thomson predicted. Instead they held on and now the regime is retreating to Damascus, with Alex in tow, to hunker down for the final act. By overestimating the power of the regime in July reports like this only slowed the process of its demise, creating greater resentment and radicalization among Syrians. Perhaps Alex thought he was being objective, but it would be more honest if he admitted he was wrong about the relative positions of the government and the rebels. The regime signed its own death sentence over a year ago. More vigorous action then would have averted so much of the bloodshed that has taken place since. And now we have a bigger problem: AL QAEDA in Syria.

  6. chriswoodslib says:

    Honest and accurate!

  7. Sami says:


    Very disappointing article. You completely skim over the mass murder of the Syrian people by the regime, then make the weak false comparison of the FSA fighting in built up areas being as bad as the regime’s widespread attacks on civilians.

    As for the regime still having a wide base of support, that is not and has never been true. Do not confuse scared silence for support. The only true support they have is from those who stand to lose in terms of finance and power when the regime falls.

    As a Syrian who has known nothing other than the Ba’ath regime, I refuse to believe that the people of Syria could not achieve better circumstances then those provided by a regime which has done nothing other then suppress, murder and steal from the people.

    Let people remember that we asked for reform and we asked so in a peaceful manner and the regime responded with violence. So what else do people expect us to do?

    Finally, I am tired of accusations, like those in the comments here, that this revolution is inspired and enabled by proxy forces.

    It is bad enough to be denied freedom and worse still to be denied agency.

    1. truth to power says:

      what mass murder by the Syrian regime…the made up stories in the western media…?

      It is easy for people like you sitting in your living room at home to cheer for rebels in some far away country…because the TV folks tell you they want democracy…

      But how would you like to have those rebels in your neighbourhood…?…attacking police and government troops…executing members of parliament…?

      You probably would not like that too much would you…?

  8. zazuge says:

    It’s tiring to hear the same platitude in these comments again and again
    rebels don’t come out of the void or parachuted from the sky
    it doesn’t matter if rebels are good/bad capitalists/commis …whataver
    it’s the leaders fault al whatis happening
    its the law of nature , be too tight people revolt thats the equations it have nothing to do with ideology or being pro/anti American
    hey by the way USA is not an omnipotent God/Satan
    alegdely anti-American folk attribut too much power to the States

  9. PM says:

    thanks for the more balanced coverage — at last some reporting about syria that makes sense.

    unfortunately, it’s almost completely drowned out in the uk by the olympics hysteria.

  10. Question All says:

    Your last two articles have been most enlighenting Alex, an independent voice in a wilderness of shadows, lies and half-truths.

    The Arab Spring is a Sunni Uprising. For all the romantic talk of the secularists and young revolutionaries that were at the heart of the rising in Egypt, where are they now? But look at who got the power – The Brotherhood. And it is a Saudi financed and armed, Turkey-hosted Sunni Uprising aimed at putting the Brotherhood into government in Syria that is being backed by the West against the secularist Arab nationalist regime of Assad.

    It appears that it is only the Russians, for all of their domestic faults, who see the bigger picture and the dangerous game that is being played. Aside from the fact that there is not a chance in hell that the Russians will give up their only naval and military base on the Mediterranean, which is also an important strategic point in the region, there is also a greater danger in allowing a superpower imbalance in the Middle East which would effectively put the despotic regime of Saudi Arabia in political charge of the entire region.

    It’s no surprise to hear that Putin has been in direct contact with the leaders of Israel and Turkey to warn them that there are other diplomatic avenues available, which would make life unconfortable for them. Turkey relies on Russian gas, economic sanctions can work both ways. Israel has a fairly recent immigrant population from Russia of more than 6 million, many of whom still look to Moscow for political guidance. Russia has been at pains to point out the Sunni nature of the uprising and whether the encouragement of more ‘Hamas’ type regimes in the area is really in Israel’s strategic and long term interests?

  11. DavidDaniels says:

    Finally a real journalist challenges the propaganda to give us the real story. Thank you very much Mr. Thomson!

  12. Tonyhen says:

    Though you say there were no ‘vast protests against the regime’ there were decent sized protests of a non-violent character early on, with roses displayed, and according to some accounts that made the media. Those non-violent protests were usurped by some impatient ones yes? And, taken advantage of by those who were prone to use violence without seeing what kind of future that would bring. Can you bring any light into the situation where that non-violent section of the people can re-emerge?

  13. Hoboturkey says:

    if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, well it must be an international conspiracy !
    Goodness me, who fired the first shots and how long was it before any real resistance started.
    Of course a trend can be seen.
    Remember fanatics that are everywhere are not contagious.
    Assad will go because the syrians say so, why ?
    Because its a duck !

  14. Alex says:

    Thank you for truthful reporting. You do not fear for the truth?

  15. Philip Edwards says:


    If you get the chance, see an RT documentary titled “Shooting V Shooting.” Even allowing for Russian propaganda it is a very powerful work.

    Meantime your brave work and words are much appreciated. They are beyond praise, very much in the waning John Pilger tradition.

    Stay safe and careful.

  16. Anna says:

    Best report on the Syrian Crisis, thank you Alex, it has answered my questions and cleared the confusion on the What and Why.

  17. devon says:

    An accurate summary. I think a lot also depends on the Syria’s neighbouring countries. A lot of non syrians are joining in the fighting and there are various branches of al quaeda in syria. If neighbouring countries refuse to let the rebels use their borders as bases, this would help stop the violence. Turkey is playing a major role hosting terrorist groups who are fighting the regime. The CIA are in southern Turkey co-ordinating attacks. But things aren’t turning out as turkey expected. If Turkey wakes up and realises it has a stronger friend in Russia than America, that would change things radically. Turkey currently wants to join the SCO.

  18. AM says:

    It really worries me that some people think that to support impartial journalism is to support a tyrant. That to question mass media propaganda and object to the escalation of violence in another country is somehow wrong.

    Alex Thomson is the only journalist I am aware of that provides such an unbiased, reasonable account of developments in Syria. He unlike many speaks of the realities on the ground while politicians sabre-rattle and exacerbate an already dangerous situation.

    I have read two comments stating that he has forgotten or omitted the horrors of the Assad regime. Of course he hasn’t and to accuse him of doing so is base, over-emotive or disingenuous. First and second world countries have done business with such tyrants for decades and continue to do so. To think external powers are motivated by humanitarianism is naive or again disingenuous.

    We should all believe in fact-based, impartial agenda-free news. It’s hard to find but Channel 4 news and co. are the best we have in the UK. Keep it up.

  19. WHY says:

    I would like to state the obvious here, but I find it very strange why no reporter has yet to mention the fact that THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY is supported and backed by AL- QAIDA. The same Al Qaida that is responsible for 9/11, London bombings and Bali bombings just to name a few. So what people should be asking is WHY are the western governments supporting them in Syria, yet are at war with them in Afganistan and Iraq. WHY???

  20. June Liveley says:

    Please Mr. Thomson,stop this superficial reporting. You are in Damascus and, of course, you are escoported by the regime whereever you go. I’m sure you can still buy a coffee in Shalan and try to ignore what is going on in Kafarsouseh or Zabadani. It is impossible for you to give a balanced report on what is happening to the Syrian people because you are only allowed to see what they want you to see. It’s interesting to see the comments following your articles,many if which are supportive of the regime, or tend to look at Syria from the outside as being a pawn in the hands of the super powers. What we need from reporters are stories that tell us about the Syrian people, the ones that are suffering: those who are prepared to die and those who have no choice. The thousands in prison and detention centres, the thousands of refugees. Just about everything in your reports we already know, so please spare us your analysis and get out of Damascus and do some real investigative reporting.

    1. Umm Abdullah says:

      Exactly! Very few people talk about the Syrian people, about what they’ve endured for years and that of course they want some freedom.

      The people fighting are Syrians. All credible reports (and sorry, I don’t include Russian propaganda as credible) are that there have been very few foreign ‘jihadis’, although that number will grow as time goes on because they see the Syrian people begging for help and not getting much…

      Was/is Alex Thomson in Syria? As a guest of the regime? If so, he should mention that.

      1. NK says:

        I’ve just come back from visiting family in Syria. Damascus, Christian quarters. ( we met just outside the border)

        All well, (thank God!). All quiet, shops, work as normal. All say the same – much to my surprise – they love their leader and support the regime, that he protects them and they don’t want him to go. They want security from him and their good lives there than chaos for democracy that will never likely be a western style functioning one.

        Certainly in Damascus, it was business as usual at the time. Can’t speak for other population groups, only direct reports from my family, friends and those I met.

        So one thing is sure. The UK reports do not represent everyone (even if if turns out a minority) and there is a proportion (though I can’t say how large) who want the rebels to stop and their normal lives to carry on.

      2. Hus says:

        Christian is the word.

  21. us666uk says:

    US, UK and EU are Axis of Evil. All of you dumb enough to think that for the first time in history the power elites care about anybody but themselves need to check in to your nearest mental institution. Syria is just next in line for power grabbing evil psychos.

  22. RolandUK says:

    One of the best reports over Syria. No bias reports as we see everyday by UK media. Probably spending a week in the ground helps the cold minded journalists like Alex to realise the truth. The problem everybody should ask is, what happens next: an Islamic state or a “democratic” chaotic failed state such as current Libya? The future looks dark for Syrians as other “democracies” such as Saudis and Qataris and co.trying to teach Syrians what democracy is. What a hypocrisy!

  23. Hus says:

    What did you expect? Mr Thomson and other western journalists in Damascus are surrounded by regime minders and agents day and night. Later these journalists notice that regime people do not have long sharp teeth so they must not be the monsters the west makes them out to be. Thus these western journalists become objective.

    Then they look around and find no Tahrir Squares:

  24. Hus says:

    You say the regime’s army does not let you film what they’re doing.

    Why? What are they doing?

  25. Hus says:

    You say the regime’s armt won’t let you film what they do.

    why? what are they doing?

  26. Hus says:

    When do you expect this report will be cited by regime media?

  27. Mo says:

    Even if Satan himself was to join the Syrian uprising, this will not detract from the legitimacy of the call to topple the regime.

  28. WS says:


    The above video link is an interview with Syrian Ambassador in Beijing. Start watching from 7:40 when he mentioned that he was approached three times in the past 12 month by the Qataris for defection.

  29. Afghanpaal says:

    Absolutely terrific report Alex – cuts through the nonsense of over-simplified and frankly biased reportage we find on other outlets such as BBC. For anyone that is interested, Alex’s reports are echoed in the press of not just other non-western nations, but even in other quarters of the mainstream UK/US media (if you look hard for it!). There is now plenty of evidence to show that western states in alliance client Sunni/Wahabi states are backing to the hilt FSA rebels who are receiving much military expertise from special forces and Islamist militias such as those that had the road to power bombed clear for them by NATO recently in Libya. Well done again Alex, keep it up and don’t let the few pro-Saudi spoilers on this site here stop you!

  30. Littleangel911 says:

    I disagree with this. You are biased in your report. Thousands are fleeing from Syria to Turkey. Why? War is hell. Watching your families die from hunger, abuse because a tyrant won’t let certain people have their basic human rights. Until people can stop thinking they are superior & stop treating others like scum this fighting will go on.

  31. RFowler says:

    truth to power: “what mass murder by the Syrian regime…the made up stories in the western media…?”

    The mass murder by the Syrian regime is not made up. The rebels probably won’t be much better, but it is a fact that Assad’s forces have committed atrocities. This has been reported around the world.

    I know the rebels have committed atrocties, and this is not reported much in the western media, but suggesting that Assad has clean hands in this is utterly ridiculous.

  32. Stella says:

    Extraordinary that you conclude “The safe bet is that regime support remains considerable across many urban areas” because you don’t see massive demonstrations everywhere, at the same time as observing that “there are secret and overt police and army on pretty much every major street and junction in these cities”. I think the safe assumption is that many people are afraid to speak openly if they oppose the regime, and that the demonstrators on the street were the bravest representatives of a much larger like-minded population. In Britain when there’s a demonstration, we assume that the demonstrators represent the opinions of many others who didn’t have the time, energy or whatever to attend. If they had to face state snipers, prison, torture and being beaten to death in order to demonstrate, i guess the demonstrators would be smaller in number so the population they represented would be that much more by comparison. Would you want to live under a government like the Syrian regime? I expect the answer to be no because you must have some idea of how vicious they are. But on the other hand, would you be out on the streets waving a placard to protest against them? Again, I suspect the answer would be no, you’d probably be trying to keep your head down and get on with your life. So would that translate as regime support? Of course there are plenty of Syrians who are nasty to other Syrians, or who just hear state propaganda and accept it, so the regime does have its supporters and they can safely make their voices heard, I guess you were hearing them a lot.

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