'There is no sectarianism in the army': Syria’s war – the general’s view

Robert Fisk joins General Yussef Swaidan on the streets of Daraya as the officer tells a crowd there is no army brutality – while his soldiers hand out Syrian flags to children

Damascus

General Yussef Swaidan was doing the Syrian army version of hearts and minds, standing behind a fruit stall surrounded by a couple of dozen shopkeepers on the very edge of Daraya. See how well the army treats you. See how the lies of the terrorists about army brutality are wrong. I had heard this before.

The three-star general's sunglasses reflected the midday heat, the crowd appropriately - or obediently - roared their support. There was even a civilian with a beard who opened the back of a van and distributed Syrian flags to passing schoolchildren. Then came a tremendous blast of outgoing artillery fire.

There were others who merely listened; the general's giant conscript bodyguard, Tamer - steel helmet covered in camouflage, Kalashnikov cradled in his arms - was watching the length of the street and the surrounding alleyways, and glancing towards the rooftops. In ordinary life, he is a shepherd from Deir ez-Zour, but now he was watching a different kind of flock.

The general was quite frank about it. "Who knows if the terrorists did not leave people behind here when they left?" he pondered later. "There could be spies. If we continued down this road, you could be taken hostage. Your life depends on just one phone call out of here. Who knows what is in the hearts of the people?"

Grim words, but the 45-year-old general has a tough job. As field commander of Daraya - a place of constant battle and at least one massacre 18 months ago - he is, like other Syrian generals around Damascus, trying to talk his soldiers' way back into the rebel-held suburbs, meeting "reconciliation committees" of doctors, shop-owners, religious sheikhs who live under the rule of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups. "Syrian fighters who surrender their weapons will be given a clean record," he told me. "The foreigners who are here must go, or their grave will be in Syria."

It's a hard sell, but it clearly worked just down the road in Lawan more than a year ago. The rebels have left and the shops are open and this little bit of Damascus was quiet. The soldiers were offered falafel - ground and fried chickpeas - by a local vendor. But then, he would do that, wouldn't he? Who knows whom he gave his falafel to a couple of years ago when the rebels were here? The general watched all this with proprietary interest. This is, after all, his territory.

A balding man with a grey moustache, General Swaidan, of the Syrian army's 4th Brigade, comes from Latakia (I think he is an Alawite, but he refuses to acknowledge any sect) and claims he has no ceasefires with "terrorists".

I suspect this is true in one sense, and yet it is clear that the army is trying to use words as well as bullets to recover the lost suburbs around Damascus. As he talked peace, sitting on a chair in the weird environment of a long-disused nursery garden, a 155mm field gun fired off an artillery round over our heads, the shell hissing off on a range of 14 miles to protect, the general said, a military checkpoint under attack south of Damascus.

He is a political as well as a military man, accusing Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel and America of struggling to weaken Syria. "All made a mistake in thinking they could break the unity of the Syrian people."

So how come the new weapons which the rebels are using - new radio equipment, new sniper rifles and new missiles - are crossing the border from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon? "No nation in the world can control its borders when all countries conspire against it. The US cannot even control its border with Mexico. So how could Syria in these circumstances?"

Sitting beside the general was another officer, also wearing shades, who nodded from time to time and occasionally made a few comments of his own. Colonel Samir listened intently to all we said and I suggested, rather pointedly, that while the general was the field commander, he must be from military intelligence - an idea fervently denied but with enough laughter to suggest I might be right.

There was much talk of how the military and political leadership of Syria knew that Israel was waiting for this moment to hit Syria, and how they were ready to defend the country against this kind of attack. The general claimed - and he said the same to the people outside the fruit stall - that the Syrian army could take over all rebel territory in seven days but refrained from doing so because it did not want to kill its own civilians. "The terrorists are using the people as human shields," he said. Now where, I wonder, have I heard that before? It is exactly what Israel says when it bombs civilians all over Lebanon.

"There will be no ceasefire with terrorists. I can't trust them. They would use a truce to get more arms supplies." These, he says, include weapons made in Israel, Ukraine and Belgium - the latter is certainly true, since I have seen captured Belgian pistols in Aleppo - and are regularly shown on state television. "No army in the world can defeat a conspiracy unless the people stand with the soldiers," the general adds. "When we enter some villages which have been in the hands of terrorists, we often find pictures of Bashar al-Assad hidden behind closets. We get much of our information from civilians living in the terrorist areas."

And that, of course, is exactly what the British Army used to say in Northern Ireland when it was also searching people's homes.

As for General Swaidan's soldiers, they arrive to salute their commander and are invited to talk to me: a group of conscripts who give their full names and their civilian jobs - one was a tailor, another a carpenter - and cheerfully say they are Sunni Muslims. Assad, of course, is an Alawite, but the general is careful of percentages, saying that 60 to 65 per cent of the 4th Brigade are Sunnis. "There is no sectarianism in this army, not in our brigade, and if you tour the checkpoints around the city, you will find most of the soldiers are Sunnis."

The rebel forces in Syria, of course, are almost all Sunni Muslims, and that was the general's point: Syrian Sunnis also fight for the army. And when I did stop at the general's checkpoints and rather cruelly demanded to know their religion, almost all of them were indeed Sunni, some conscripts, many regular soldiers.

General Swaidan launches himself into a tale of the Prophet Mohamed. "He was sitting by the road one day with his friends and a funeral went by. The Prophet stood up and told his friends to pay their respects. One of them turned to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and said: 'But don't you know this is a funeral for a Jewish man?' And the Prophet said: 'Don't you realise that the dead body is that of a human being?' This is the essence of Islam." To which I had absolutely no reply.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released the first teaser trailer a week early after it leaked online

Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer - Cardiff - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits and bonus: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer ...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:TEACHERS REQUIREDWe are...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistant ...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?