26 Mar 2013

Syria’s civilian casualties – does either side care?

I am staring at it right now from my hotel bedroom, the impact zone, about 400 yards away across a mix typical of a city centre: a busy dual-carriageway, a museum, office blocks and the tree-lined avenues of the university campus.

Somebody decided this was a target. If they are Damascene, then they will know how crowded with students, street-food sellers and traffic this entire zone is. If they are Syrian, or from abroad, or even from Pluto, they will know this area is full of Syrians – civilian Syrians.

I personally saw the fins of three mortars, two of them dug from the tarmac by soldiers intent on removing the evidence that the city centre of their capital  is now a free-fire zone for the rebels trying to reshape Syria by force.

There are large pools of blood and the usual red footprints you get at these situations where people helped broken and shattered and bleeding people to waiting cars, vans, whatever, before the ambulances would be on the scene – and they are pretty fast around here.

In the past three days, incoming mortars have hit private flats, a church, a city centre park, the Sheraton Hotel, Syrian TV, the SANA news agency and its next door neighbour, the law faculty of the University of Damascus.

Civilian targets appear not to be off limits for both pro and anti-government fighters in Damascus. This picture shows a mortar attack on a building in the Zamalka neighbourhood last month.

The government’s Syrian Arab Army routinely pulverizes civilian areas from where the rebel groups fight, and kills large numbers of civilians in so doing.

It is hard to build any other case than that the rebel tactic here is pure terror and demoralisation. If they think they are going after military targets, then the above list from the past three days can only prove they are lethally incompetent.

Perhaps it is simply giving the government a taste of its own medicine.

Watch more in our week of special reports on Syria’s Descent

More likely, in a war in which a suicide bomber will enter and detonate worshippers in a mosque; where civilian massacres are a feature of war-fighting; where a young boy cuts off the head of a captured army officer – yes, more likely by far in this war is that neither side gives a damn about killing civilians any more.

And knowingly setting out to kill them at that. They will both complain at this. Supporters and apologists of both sides will be furious of course.

I tell them all the facts on the ground – the civilian blood, and the human gore, on the ground –¬† say different.

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6 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    It seems to be horrendous. But I have no idea what we, as individuals or the UK, can actually do about it. I realise that Iraq wasn’t an intervention in a civil war, but, despite what Blair implies, would an external intervention, even if blessed by the UK (which seems improbable) achieve any less bloodshed? Even Libya is scarcely an unqualified success – and seems to have spawned conflict well beyond its borders, so I’m not sure how far the limited intervention was a good or bad thing in the long run. Who knows what might happen in Egypt and Tunisia? You certainly couldn’t predict which way it might go.
    It seems to me that many of these countries are on a fault line between relatively modern, westernised elements of society and more fundamentalist Islam, along with tribal/clan, ethnic and religious divides that, as we saw in former Yugoslavia, seem to explode into violence and hatred once the grip of an autocratic regime is loosened. Though morally we all wish we could do more, I don’t see there’s much the UK can do. Our record in the Middle East, especially with Arab countries, is besmirched by Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. It strikes me that there are three areas where we could exercise influence – in private not by playing to the gallery – (a) encourage Turkey to take a more leading role in trying to seek an end or limitation of the violence; (b) encourage the Russians & Chinese to lead in brokering a solution; and (c) encourage the US to press Israel to negotiate a decent two state treaty with the Palestinians and a sensible deal with Iran on its nuclear facilities.

  2. Ailsa says:

    Many thanks Alex for your continuing reports. It sounds terrible beyond comprehension out there. I feel the same sense of hopelessness re what we in Britain can do to help… But to sit with the rest of the world & do nothing seems unforgivable. How many times does the UN have to see situations like these before it does something more useful, sooner in the conflict? To turn our heads away from such suffering must surely be wrong… And we in the west call ourselves a civilised, educated people.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    In all the history of humanity there has never been a war where the participants “cared.”

    How can there be? The whole purpose of war is to win as soon as possible by inflicting maximum casualties on the enemy.

    Europe and the USA are the very last to lecture anybody on warfare, not after World Wars 1 and 2 and the colonial wars and invasions they inflicted on the rest of the planet. Which is why Cameron/Hague’s most recent bleatings sound like the hypocritcal self righteous garbage they are. As for Obama……words fail for the instigator of mass murder by drone attack.

    Both Assad and his enemies are mass murderers. But so were Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin.

  4. CGM says:

    Two years of armed conflict, and it just gets worse. It has to be time to STOP arms getting to ALL sides. Hopefully, when they run out of ammo, they’ll start talking, and even if they don’t, it’ll be harder for them to kill people. Let’s have an arms blockade, enforced by soldiers and ships around the borders. It won’t be total, but could be good enough to concentrate the warring parties’ minds (if any).
    Putting in more arms just guarantees that the victor or victors will be fanatical and ruthless.

  5. Capricorn says:

    Funny – sounds very similar to the situation in an Island off South East India. Looks like Big Countries can learn from the far away smaller countries, at least in mass murder.

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