Special report

Damascus: A deserted city, a deserting UN, and a storm about to break

Last week a UN security guard was kidnapped, tortured and murdered near his home

"He will not survive," my Syrian friend said, and I think he was right.

The man on the state television was bearded down to his chest, a self-confessed Salafist – nom de guerre "Abu Dolha", real name Ahmed Ali Gharibo. A Syrian – "alas," said my friend – from the Ghouta district of Damascus. He admitted, right there in front of the cameras, that he "regretted" killing 200 people with his own hands.

What did it take to get a man like this to admit such things on television? Sitting up in this breezy villa, 16 miles from Damascus – Bashar's brother Maher lives just round the corner – I could well believe what my friend said: Ahmed Gharibo will not survive.

Like all civil conflicts, rumours turn into facts, facts into rumours. Damascus is almost deserted, near-empty boulevards with more military checkpoints than traffic lights, some "mukhabarat" security, some army, the occasional "shabiha", friendly to me – they would be, wouldn't they, as I drive towards the elite mansions outside town – but a bit down-at-heel.

"How in the West, being advocates of democracy and liberty and freedom, can you support these people?" my friend asks. "Do your readers know that Her Majesty sends weapons and money to these people?"

I am about to point out that HMG claims that it doesn't give weapons at all – the word "claim" is all-important in Syria these days, like the conspiracy theory of history.

"The first step to dismantle Iran is to dismantle Syria – we are isolated and 123 countries are against us; that was the figure of those who gathered for the so-called 'Friends of Syria' conference in Paris."

I begin to think of the Serbs and their total conviction that the world was against them, that their innocence was without question. Ah, but like the old Yugoslavia, you only have to walk the streets of Damascus to realise that the storm has not yet fully broken. Behind the walls of the old French mandate barracks down from Umayyad Square, the burned wreckage of this week's fuel-truck bomb stands below a wizened tree. Was it aimed at the run-down "caserne" that the Syrian army still uses or a little trick for the UN officers in the Dama Rose Hotel across the road? The last 100 military observers are packing for the road journey to Beirut airport on Wednesday. The transit point of Beirut rather than Damascus airport tells its own story. "We are defunct in five days," I heard one of the UN officers say in the lobby. Funny word, "defunct", French for dead.

But maybe the truck bomber wanted the UN dead too? Shortly after the explosion, several aimed shots were fired at the UN's third-floor hotel offices. Is it true that a Syrian camera crew were already on the eighth floor, ready to tape the bomb? That ambulances came within three minutes?

The UN were beginning to realise that their men were increasingly endangered in the provinces. In Aleppo, they started off with a 30-mile radius of the city and within months, their government escorts would not venture beyond the last government checkpoint on the city limits. The rebels were less friendly to the UN, and several of the international observers saw foreign fighters among the "Free Syrian Army".

Last week – the UN has not exactly advertised the fact – a security man working for the UN, a former government security agent, was kidnapped and tortured and then murdered near his home north of Damascus. They found 20 bullet wounds in his body. The UN's men are not talking – rarely have they been so uncommunicative – but they have counted the corpses in Artous, 25 miles west of Damascus, 70 bodies in all, Sunnis, in a mass grave, just two weeks ago. Killed, it seems, by the "shabiha".

The FSA have been well and truly cleared out of the centre of Damascus – the suburbs at night are a different matter – and few Damascenes seem to believe that the armed rebels are winning in Aleppo.

"The Christians are protesting," another Syrian friend tells me. "The Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo has just made an appeal to the Western powers not to send weapons to the fundamentalists. The Syrian Catholic church in Aleppo has now been bombed."

How does one reply to all this? Does the Syrian government really want the UN to leave? "No!" cries my friend. "We want UN pressure here to force these 'people' into dialogue."

The Salafist told his audience today that his enemies were "Alawites [of course, for Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite] and Shiites and Christians". So is that it? War by television? An acknowledgement that the man won't live long beyond this broadcast. And the UN are indeed leaving. There is an idea of a miniscule office remaining in Damascus with a military and a political observer. But otherwise, the great gloomy eyes of the UN donkey will close sleepily on Wednesday; it's the failure of another mission – and not a single international soldier will be left behind to watch the storm burst.

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