Published on 22 Nov 2013

A Damascus funeral: ‘He died defending the nation’

Rows of black-clad mourners sat weeping in the Catholic church in Tabala, near the old city of Damascus, today as a priest performed funeral rites for Major General Joseph Fadlallah Dakhlallah. His photograph – a classic dapper uniformed military man with grey hair and a splendid moustache – was placed next to his coffin, which had been draped in the black, red and white Syrian flag.

The Syrian government has said little about the attack in which he lost his life. An official told us only 22 were killed when rebels tunneled under the military vehicle maintenance centre at Harasta last Sunday. But rebel video posted online shows such a huge blast it seems impossible that so few should have died.

Some reports suggest the real figure may be 150 or 200, including at least five senior officers. The “Shield of the Capital” brigade that claim to have blown up the complex say it contained not only the vehicle depot but also a prison and a listening post. They spent six months tunneling for 300 metres so they could blow it up when hundreds of soldiers would be inside.

“He was doing his duty,” said Mansour Albadoun, Major Genenal Dakhlallah’s relative by marriage. “He was the best in the Syrian army at fixing heavy vehicles and tanks. Four days ago the terrorists came and placed bombs underneath the building he was in, and destroyed it. He died alongside his colleagues and innocent soldiers defending the nation.”

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I watched as pall bearers carried his coffin from the church into the cemetery opposite. Robed priests processed ahead, while other members of the congregation bore crosses made of white gladioli and chrysanthemums. Two young men in leather jackets supported a third as he stumbled and wept. To them this was a personal tragedy and a sign that the government they support is still vulnerable.

In the last three months, the Syrian government has made advances, pushing rebel forces out of suburbs near the capital that they had controlled for more than a year. With advice and training from Iran, and extra troops from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Syrian military have developed a strategy that seems to be working.

In the last week, they have taken the town of Qara, on the road to Homs, and are pushing into the Qalamoun mountains to block arms smuggling routes from Lebanon. Further north, they are working with Kurdish force on the Turkish border and advancing on rebel-held Aleppo.

But the rebel attack on the Harasta base shows that the rebels can still mount effective operations. A report in the Wall Street Journal (subscription link) suggests that it was the most deadly for government forces since the conflict began three years ago.

From my hotel room I can hear the boom of outgoing mortars as the army pounds the suburbs. Video from Harasta shows air raids on the area in retaliation for the explosion at the military base. There is more fighting to be done before this war is over.

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