Syria Q&A: 'Life is tough and the violence will get worse. The regime may soon turn to chemical weapons'

The Independent's Kim Sengupta was the only journalist embedded in Aleppo, one of the fiercest battlegrounds of the Syrian civil war. This is an extract from an online question-and-answer session yesterday about his three weeks on the front line

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Q. The situation there and the suffering is just unimaginable. How can this end? When will it end? It looks to me like Syria is going the same way as Lebanon and there could be 10 years-plus of conflict.

Nigel King (via Google+)

A. It looks like the violence will go on for a while longer. You are right that the strife is likely to go on in the future, along Balkan or, as you put it, Lebanese lines. The sectarian antagonism which has been created sadly points in that direction.

Q. Do you feel the 'Arab Spring' has diminished or increased the threat of terrorism in Europe and the US?

Charlotte, London

A. Some extreme Islamists who may have taken part in organising terrorist plots in the West were and are focusing on the Arab Spring. But the number of plots overall, according to the security and intelligence services anyway, have not noticeably decreased since the Arab Spring began; most have failed to come to fruition. Most plots in the UK at least are linked to Pakistan and, lately, Somalia and Yemen, rather than the Arab Spring countries.

Q. How likely is it that the Assad regime will resort to the use of chemical weapons, and under what circumstances do you think such a development is likely to happen?

Sam Barcock

A. I think we need to be very sceptical about the use of WMDs. Syria is a particularly vicious war and there is, of course, the possibility that the regime, in desperation, may start using chemical weapons. I doubt that will be the case and the rebels don't seem to be over-worried about WMDs either.

Q. Where do you think the rebels secured such hi-tech weaponry as that Steyr AUG A1 and the Nato 5.56mm rounds to fire through it?

Actually A Banana

A. I saw just two Steyr rifles in my three weeks in Aleppo among hundreds of rebels and the owners of both of them were running out of ammunition. The standard weapons they have are AK-47s , RPGs and some mortars. The Libyan rebels I was with last year were vastly better armed.

Q. How supportive are the Syrian general public of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other factions fighting the regime? Is there a sense that they are to blame for the current devastation, or does the blame lie with Bashar al-Assad?

A. The Assad government enjoys an element of support among the Sunnis as well as the Alawites and the Christians. Aleppo was late in joining the revolution and one heard complaints from the rebels about the attitude of some of the residents. Older people tended to be more pro-Assad than younger ones and various clans, such as the Barris, fought for the government. As the scale of destruction from shelling and air strikes grew, criticism of the rebels also grew to an extent. Most people, however, say at least that they are for the revolution.

Q. What is life like for civilians in Syria at the moment and what are their immediate needs?


A. Things are extremely tough. The level of hardship the people suffer depends, of course, on where they are. In Aleppo and the individual towns around it the main problems now are lack of power, increasingly, lack of food and the start of a water shortage. The clinics in the rebel-held areas are short of equipment, medicine and medics. Injured fighters obviously cannot go to the government hospital for treatment; many civilians, too, say they fear arrest if they go to them.

Q. Do you think providing the opposition with more developed weapons can help to end this crisis faster? How do you evaluate the public support of the FSA inside Syria? Can you see any prospect for a solution?


A. The rebels need heavier weapons facing what they do from the regime. In particular they are in need of anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons. Part of the problem about arming them, I gather from people who are supplying the arms, is that the rebels have, so far, failed to form cohesive bodies through whom distribution can take place. Instead individual khatibas (battalions) send their own shopping lists. Any solution must start with a proper ceasefire which can be monitored. On the ground the chances of that seem further away than ever.

Q. I understand that there are many factions claiming the name of the "Free Syrian Army" but how varied are their aims and ideologies?

Laurence Hardy (via Facebook)

A. You are right, many factions and factions within factions. The FSA does not have a noticeable command-and-control structure and there is often contempt expressed by the fighters on the ground for those in the FSA whom they see as leading an easy life in Turkey, Lebanon or the West. There is a wide variety of religious and political aims among the rebels, including various shades of Islamists. They do not, however, comprise the majority of the fighters by any means.

Q How critical is Turkey's role in any solution to the Syria crisis?


A What Turkey is doing and may do in the future will be of huge importance. Turkey rather than Lebanon and Jordan is the main conduit for rebel fighters and weapons going into Syria at present and the volume of this will increase in the future. So far, however, the Turks have tried to keep quite tight control of what passes through their territory and they seem anxious not to let countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have overwhelming influence over the opposition. Turkey is also having to cope with a refugee crisis, one of the reasons for their demand for a security zone inside Syria.

Q. What evidence, if any, have you seen of foreign funding and foreign troops? #indysyria

false_dawn (via Twitter)

A. Funding, certainly: the rebels appear to be getting considerable sums of money from abroad, especially the Gulf countries, as well as from the wealthier members of the Syrian diaspora in other countries. There are complaints about exactly what has happened to some of this money. I have seen foreign fighters, as stated previously, but no troops from foreign countries.