Dispatch from Damascus: The killing fields remain, and truth is as rare as hope
And so the war goes on. Missile alerts may be over but the killing fields remain, untouched by Obama’s pale threats or Sergei Lavrov’s earnestness. The Syrian army fights on in the rubble and the shells fly over Damascus and the road from Lebanon is still littered with checkpoints. Only when you reach the city do you notice how many people have now built iron guard doors before their homes and iron gates on car parks. The claim that 40-50,000 rebels surround the capital is probably untrue but there are up to 80,000 security men and soldiers inside Damascus and, on this battlefront, they may well be winning.
It’s a campaign that started long before the use of sarin gas on 21 August and continued long afterwards. But on that fateful night, the Syrian army did mount one of its fiercest bombardments of rebel areas. In 12 separate attacks, it tried to put special forces men inside the insurgent enclaves, backed up by artillery fire. These included the suburbs of Harasta, and Arbin.
I was chatting yesterday to an old Syrian friend, a journalist who used to be in the country’s special forces and he – quite by chance – said he was embedded with Syrian government troops on the night of 21 August. These were men of the Fourth Division – in which the President’s brother Maher commands a brigade – and my friend was in the suburb of Moadamiyeh – the site of one of the chemical attacks. He recalls the tremendous artillery bombardment but saw no evidence of gas being used. This was one of the areas from which the army was attempting to insert bridgeheads into rebel territory. What he does remember is the concern of government troops when they saw the first images of gas victims on television – fearing that they themselves would have to fight amid the poisonous fumes.
Frontline Syrian forces do carry gas masks but none was seen wearing any. “The problem,” my friend said, “is that after Libya there are so many Russian weapons and artillery pieces smuggled into Syria that you don’t know what anybody’s got any more. The Libyans can’t produce enough of their oil but they sure can export all Gaddafi’s equipment.” But that doesn’t necessarily include sarin gas. Nor does it let the Syrian government off the hook. The protocols on the use of gas and missiles are said to be very strict in Syria so, of course, we come back to the old question: who ordered those missiles fired during the awful night of 21 August?
Some questions are familiar. Why use gas when so much more lethal weaponry is being flung at rebel forces across the country? If the government wanted to use gas, why not employ it north of Aleppo where not a single government soldier or official exists? Why in Damascus? And why wasn’t gas used on this scale in the previous two years? And why employ such a dreadful weapon when the end result is that Syria – by giving up its stocks of chemical weapons – has effectively lost one of its strategic defences against an Israeli invasion? No wonder, another Syrian friend of mine remarked last night, that the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem had such a long and shocked face when he made his Moscow announcement. Wasn’t Israel the real winner in all this?
Most probably Israel is also the winner in Syria’s civil war, as its once great neighbour is smashed and pulverised by a conflict which may continue for another two years. Syria was never a wealthy nation, but rebuilding its smashed cities and railways and roads is going to take many years. Rumours in Damascus are thicker than the smoke which envelops part of the city. Among the latest is an allegedly secret Western demand that a new Syrian government be formed of 30 ministers – 10 of them regime figures and at least 10 others independents – and that there must be a total restructuring of the army and security services. Since the West no longer has the means of enforcing such ambitious plans, all this sounds unlikely. Unless the Russians are also supporting the idea.
North of Damascus, the Jabhat al-Nusra forces are now way back from the ancient, partly Christian town of Maaloula which was recaptured by the Syrian Third Armoured Division. But this poses another question. Why on earth did the Nusra fighters take Maaloula if they had no intention of holding it? Did they think that the Syrian regime would be so distracted by the thought of an American attack that it would lack the will to drive them out? Sadly both sides have ceased to care about the weapons they use or the immorality of using them. When an Islamist fighter can film himself eating the flesh of a dead soldier, all scruples have gone.
And here is one final thought. Not long ago, rebels in Damascus murdered a woman in Harasta. One of her sons is now serving in the Syrian army. He has never touched or fired gas in his life. But as a member of his family said to me, “if he was ordered to, he would not have the slightest hesitation. He would love to revenge himself on those who killed his beloved mother.”