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

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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Chelsea players celebrate winning the Premier League title  

Success isn’t enough if you’re going to be boring

Simon Kelner
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd save small businesses from the negative influence of banks

Anil Stocker
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power