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Middle East

Fear and loathing of Syria's fallen soldiers

At Tishreen hospital, the army’s wounded lie in shock and pain, but they still want to defeat ‘the terrorists’

A month ago Lieutenant Kutaiba Hassan, a career officer in the Syrian army, led his squad of soldiers into an apartment bloc in south Damascus where they had received a tip-off that insurgents were hiding on the fourth floor.

The intelligence turned out to be partially mistaken. As Lt Hassan waited with his men on the ground floor to make their attack, they were shot at by seven men who had been hiding in the basement. The young officer was hit by ten bullets in the legs, while all the rebels died in the fighting.

Today Lt Hassan is lying in Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus where doctors have struggled to avoid amputating his lower left leg in which the broken bone is held in place by metal clamps. A confident looking man, despite his wounds, he asks why European and other foreign countries give money and weapons to people whom he and his family regard as al-Qaida terrorists.

It does not take long in Tishreen hospital to realise that the conflict in Syria is very much a civil war of great brutality in which the government has its committed supporters along with those who believe that, whatever the failings of the present government, the alternative is even worse. Captain Basil al-Khaim, shot through the chest by a sniper when his checkpoint was attacked, says “we don’t protect the regime. We protect Syria.” He denounced the insurgents as being terrorists from Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida and fundamentalists groups waging holy war on his country. He added that he was only sorry that “I am too badly wounded to go and fight them again.”

The military hospital has 1,000 beds making it one of the largest in the Middle East and its director, an orthopaedic surgeon with the rank of general who did not want his name published for fear of attacks on his family, said “we receive about 15-20 wounded soldiers a day, mostly suffering from gun shot wounds, of whom some 20 per cent die from their injuries.”

Even getting to the hospital has its dangers. The director, a Christian from near Homs, said that over the last year “six of my doctors and four ambulance drivers have been killed.” Later he showed off an ambulance with a bullet hole through the front window that had narrowly missed one driver. Earlier this week there were gun battles at the entrance to the hospital which is close to an insurgent stronghold. Just beyond the hospital gates, buildings on both sides of the road for 100 yards buildings have been flattened by bulldozers to make sniping and ambushes more difficult.

Inside the hospital many of the younger soldiers had been hit when they were on guard. Most looked grey with shock and pain. Ibrahim Mustafa, 25, was in a military training school when he was shot in the shoulder. “I cannot move my hand now,” he said. From the end of his bed his mother, Mahan, furiously denounced those who had shot her son. “In a real revolution people build things but these people destroy everything from schools to electric power lines, they kidnap and kill,” she said. 

Expressions of support for the government by wounded soldiers and their families are infrequent and sound a little forced, but their fear of and hatred for the insurgents as bloodthirsty religious fanatics backed by foreign powers hostile to Syria appears genuine. The director of the hospital said he could not give his name because members of his family in a Christian village near Homs might be targeted: “A cousin of mine called George Nakhoul was kidnapped and we are very worried about him.”   

Some of what wounded soldiers say in a military hospital about their determination to fight can be written off as bravado unlikely to be put to the test. Others may be parroting the government line about the rebels being sectarian killers out of an innate sense of caution. But others appear to believe the government’s portrayal of the enemy is essentially correct and are willing to go on fighting for the moment, even as the odds mount against success.