In words and pictures from the frontline, Goran Tomasevic tells of Syria’s brutal stalemate
Rebel fighters in Dam-ascus are disciplined, skilled and brave. In a month on the frontline, I saw them defend a stretch of suburbs in the Syrian capital, mount complex mass attacks, manage logistics, treat their wounded – and die before my eyes.
But as constant, punishingly accurate, mortar, tank and sniper fire attested, president Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers on the other side, often just a room or a grenade toss away, are also well drilled, courageous – and much better armed.
So while the troops were unable to dislodge brigades of the Free Syrian Army from devastated and depopulated neighbourhoods just east of the city centre, there seems little immediate prospect of the rebels overrunning Assad’s stronghold. The result is bloody stalemate.
I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machine gun fire.
As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a snipers’ war; men stalk their fellow man down telescopic sights, hunting a glimpse of flesh, an eyeball peering from a crack, use lures and decoys to draw their prey into giving themselves away.
Fighting is at such close quarters that on one occasion a rebel patrol stumbled into an army unit inside a building; hand grenades deafened us and shrapnel shredded plaster, a sudden clatter of Kalashnikov cartridges and bullets coming across the cramped space gave way in seconds to the groans of the wounded.
From 14 January, having reached Damascus from Lebanon by way of undercover opposition networks, I spent four weeks in Ain Tarma, Mleha, Zamalka, Irbin and Harasta – rebel-held areas forming a wedge whose apex lies less than a mile to the east of the walled Old City, with its ancient mosques, churches and bazaars.
Once bustling suburbs are all but empty of life, bar the fighters; six months of combat, of shelling and occasional air strikes have broken open apartment blocks to the winter winds of the high Syrian plateau and choked the streets with rubble.
Battling the cold in woollen ski-hats or chequered keffiyeh scarves, a few thousand unshaven men defend barricades and strongpoints, served by cars ferrying ammunition and rations and led by commanders using handheld radios and messenger runners.
Days are punctuated by regular halts for prayer in a conflict, now 23 months old, that has become increasingly one pitting Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, stiffened by Islamist radicals, against Alawites led by Assad; they have support from Iran, from whose Shiite Islam their faith is derived.
Typical of the frontline routine was an attack that a couple of dozen men of the brigade Tahrir al-Sham mounted in Ain Tarma on 30 January, aiming to take over or at least damage an army checkpoint up the lane.
I photographed one two-man fire team crouch against a breeze-block garden wall, about 50 metres from their target.
In blue jeans, trainers and muffled against a morning chill, their role was to wait for comrades to hit the army position with rocket-propelled grenades then rake the soldiers with their rifles as they were flushed out into the open.
There was little to make a sound in the abandoned streets. The attackers whispered to each other under their breath. Then two shots rang out. One of the two riflemen, heavy set and balding, screamed in pain and collapsed back on the tarmac. The day’s assault was going wrong before it even started.
Another fighter crept over to help. Realising the casualty was gravely hurt, two more came up and they dragged the man across the street, to relative safety.
Battlefield first-aid is helpless in the face of single shot to the belly. The man died in minutes. But there was no time to mourn – the army was alerted to the squad’s presence.
The rebels stepped up attacks last month, trying to weaken Assad’s grip on the outlying neighbourhoods surrounding the fortified centre of Damascus and pushing across the main ring road in the neighbourhood of Jobar.
Among the boldest offensive moves I saw was an assault by what appeared to be several hundred fighters on a sprawling army barracks in the Irbin district. It was striking for the level of co-ordination it displayed among numerous units which, lacking uniforms, donned bandannas in bright pinks, reds and oranges to identify their loyalties and reduce the risk of “friendly fire”.
One group also brought up a Soviet-built T-72 tank to take part in the attack, crewed by men who evidently had been trained in the army.
The infantry skirmish for control of the barracks involved teams of fighters stealing up to a two-metre perimeter wall that stretched for hundreds of metres around.
On a misty morning, they tried to maintain surprise, but once the shooting began there was no turning back, no sign these men might recently have been fearful civilians. They poured rifle fire through gaps in the wall, tossed grenades over it and did what they could to avoid incoming rounds.
One man poked the head of a store-window mannequin, fixed on a pole, into a hole in the wall, hoping a sniper could be tempted to betray his position. It was a wise precaution. I saw another man picked off later as he aimed through a similar gap.
By afternoon, helped by their tank, they were inside the compound, looking for enemies, intelligence and, especially, more weapons to carry off. They knew the position itself would be hard to hold – too big and open and vulnerable to air strikes.
The bulk of the rebel armoury is made up of AK-47s. Most rebels have one, though not always many magazines of bullets. I also saw US-made M4 carbines and Austrian Steyr assault rifles. Western-allied Sunni Arab leaders in the Gulf have been arming the fighters.
The rebels also have rocket-propelled grenades and some heavier anti-tank weapons – at least enough to discourage their opponents from trying to roll their armour through their lines. Capable of improvising, I saw men use a shotgun to blast a fuse-lit, home-made grenade at their enemy.
Further from the fighting, some vestiges of ordinary life goes on. Often without electricity or running water, residents try to survive; a few shops sell vegetables, or meat kebabs.
The battle for Damascus grinds on.