Robert Fisk in Damascus: Assad's troops may be winning this war in Syria's capital - untouched by Obama's threats

Dispatch from Damascus: The killing fields remain, and truth is as rare as hope

Share
Related Topics

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?

The ancient Christian town of Maaloula, recaptured by regime forces (Getty) The ancient Christian town of Maaloula, recaptured by regime forces (Getty)

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.

Rebel fighters shoot over a barricade in Aleppo (Getty) Rebel fighters shoot over a barricade in Aleppo (Getty)

 

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.”

Princess May Shakib Arslan

A week ago, one of Lebanon’s great ladies died. At 85 years old, Princess May Shakib Arslan was the widow of humanist, philosopher and politician Kamal Jumblatt who was murdered in 1977 – so the family are convinced – by Syrian assassins. Ms Arslan was also the mother of Walid Jumblatt, the present Druze leader, head of the ruthless Druze militia in the Lebanese civil war and perhaps the bravest current critic of the Syrian regime. Thousands trooped to her funeral in Mukhtara, hundreds queued to offer their condolences. But one sinister, indeed venomous letter arrived at the Jumblatt home from a certain General Jamil Sayyed, the former – and very pro-Syrian – director of Lebanon’s General Security. General Sayyed is a man you listen to. Here is part of what he wrote:

“I hope in these sad circumstances and in view of the genuine tears you have shed over your late mother, that you yourself remember…the thousands of mothers, widows and orphans that you made cry through the killings you perpetrated in your wars…I implore the mercy of God for [Princess May Shakib Arslanatt’s] soul and his forgiveness for all sins that she accidentally or deliberately committed. It is not her fault that she made you as you are. It’s not too late for Jumblatt to ask forgiveness or change who he is.” Is it a warning?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories