Dispatch from Damascus – guest article by Manuel Ochsenreiter

Dispatch from Damascus


According to the mainstream Western media, a ‘civil war’ is raging in Syria. Campaigning groups like the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (1) make extravagant claims about huge numbers of casualties (they claim that around 20,000 people have already died) at the hands of the Syrian state security forces. Independent journalists, it is alleged, are not allowed to report directly from Syria, and the regime does not permit free press activities.

From such accounts, visitors might expect to find a country shocked and paralyzed by war, full of destruction. But when I arrived in Damascus on 12 July with a journalist visa to report for ZUERST! I saw none of these things. I took the land route from Beirut to Damascus, although a lot of people had told me the route wasn’t safe, because Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels had declared that they controlled around 85% of Syria. But when I crossed the Lebanese-Syrian border, I witnessed the normal border traffic – no masses of refugees, no panic, no fights. The route to Damascus had several Syrian Army checkpoints, but was calm and safe.

Damascus itself was placid, and normal life went on. I was staying in the city centre, the al-Bahsa quarter. Shops were open, and there were people and cars on the streets. From the walls, the faces of President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez watched the daily life of the Syrian capital – sometimes friendly, sometimes strict, sometimes in civilian clothes, sometimes in military uniform, sometimes wearing sunglasses.

I had read in the Western media about the FSA operation to invade the capital, but there was no evidence of war on the streets of Damascus. I walked through the city, speaking to shop owners, taxi drivers, people on the streets, policemen, women in headscarves and in Western outfits. The answer was always the same – the international media completely distort what is happening. They singled out the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera for particular criticism.

On 16 July, I went to the old Christian village of Maalula, around an hour’s drive from Damascus. The inhabitants of Maalula are descended from the Semitic tribes which populated the Syrian desert and part of Mesopotamia fourteen centuries ago. The monastery of Mar Sarkis was built in the fourth century on the ruins of a pagan temple. Its Byzantine architecture contains one of the earliest surviving Christian altars. The monastery also possesses a unique collection of sixteenth to eighteenth century religious icons. Maalula is one of the very last places where one can encounter people speaking Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

The ancient Christian settlement of Maalula

Once again, the route was safe. There were many buses on the streets, destined for the cities of Hama, Homs and Aleppo. I interviewed inhabitants of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Tekla and Arabic Christian pilgrims and visitors. They all expressed the belief that President Bashar would lead the country out of the crisis, and that in Syria Muslims and Christians live peacefully together. A nun told me: “This city and its church are founded on the rocks of Syria. They symbolize the stability and power of Syria. We will manage this crisis.”

The author interviewing a Christian nun in Maalula

Syria is a multi-faith society, and Christians in Syria make up about 10% of the population. The city of Aleppo has the largest number of Christians in Syria. Christians engage in every aspect of Syrian life – in the economy, academia, science, engineering, the arts, entertainment and the political arena. A number of Christians are officers in the armed forces. They have preferred to mix with Muslims rather than form all-Christian units and brigades, and formerly fought alongside their Muslim compatriots against Israeli forces in various Arab-Israeli conflicts.

I returned to Damascus via the city of al Tel, which the FSA had occupied briefly until the Syrian army re-took the city. One could still see the traces of the rebel forces and their supporters – notably graffiti on walls celebrating not freedom or democracy, but rather extremist Muslim preachers. There were also threats daubed on shops – “Go on strike or burn!” – painted by rebels seeking to force the shop owners to go on strike to place pressure on the government. Western policymakers have a woefully wrong notion of Syria’s “Arab Spring”. There is little or no liberal, progressive opposition; even the FSA is an assembly of different militia groups, including jihadis, mercenaries and criminals.

On 15 July, the rebels launched what they called “Damascus Volcano”, their military assault on the capital, claiming it would be a decisive operation. But all I noticed from al-Bahsa were helicopters flying high above some suburbs, and occasional explosions, about five kilometres from where I was staying. Normal life on the streets of Damascus went on, notwithstanding excitable Western media reports that the whole capital was an inferno. In most of the city the only things which burned were the coals on the hubble-bubble pipes of café customers. The war was confined to a few districts, like Al-Midan. The explosions went on for some hours, stopped and then started again. The city centre filled up with the residents of the disputed districts, and at nights soldiers at checkpoints asked to see my passport. Otherwise there was no evidence of conflict.

The reality of "Damascus Volcano"

This changed on Wednesday 18 July, when a bomb killed several senior government officials during a meeting of ministers and heads of security agencies. The dead were the Syrian Defence Minister, General Dawoud Rajiha – Assef Shawkat, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy defence minister – the assistant to the Vice- President, General Hasan Turkmani – and Hafez Makhlouf, head of investigations at the Syrian Intelligence Agency. I was at the state TV station when I heard the news. Everybody was deeply shocked, and some female employees couldn’t hold back their tears. Meanwhile, Brussels and Washington welcomed the assassinations, while Islamists danced in the streets of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

Meanwhile the “battle of Damascus” went on. After four days everyone became inured to the sound of the bombs and helicopters. I took the opportunity to visit the military hospital of Damascus, where every day around fifteen Syrian soldiers die from their injuries – this makes about 450 soldiers a month, in the Damascus area alone. I interviewed wounded soldiers, talked to doctors and to the families of the injured.

The author interviewing wounded military personnel in Damascus Military Hospital

An interview with a 34 year old Syrian Army captain who had been lucky enough to survive a rebel attack was especially memorable. He and his unit had been trapped by the rebels, who bombarded them with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. A couple of his comrades were killed during the fight and the captain was also hit, but survived the first wave of attack. He was lying on the ground, bleeding heavily but returning fire nonetheless. When his comrades came to rescue him, they also came under fire from the rebels. They finally managed to bring him to safety inside a building, but it took hours for the army to pull them out. When he was brought into the hospital, he had lost so much blood that he was already unconscious. He recollected

“I told my comrades to kill me before I fell into the hands of the enemy.”

I asked him why, and this was his disturbing answer –

“They torture us to death – they cut off our hands and cut our throats if they capture us alive.”

He assured me also that the rebels are not Syrians, but come from many countries, especially Libya, the Gulf States, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – jihadis and mercenaries who kill for petrodollars. Before I left the hospital, he showed me a picture of his two daughters and told me fervently that he was fighting for their freedom.

The director of the hospital showed me where a mortar grenade fired by the rebels had come down a day earlier, but mercifully didn’t explode. There were also bullet holes in the walls. The rebels had attacked the hospital several times, but the UN, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch seemed uninterested in these violations of the conventions of war.

As the fighting continued, the whole city became nervous. Shop owners closed their doors early in the afternoon; they wanted to be certain of getting back to their families. Some took their money and things of value with them. They were worried that their shops might be looted and plundered – by the rebels, not by the army – if the fighting reached the city centre.

On Friday 20th July, while pro-rebel TV stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabia broadcast stories about unremitting civil war in the capital, I listened to the birds singing in the city’s beautiful parks and watched the Damascenes enjoying their free day. Even the explosions in the outlying areas ceased. State TV broadcast that the rebel attack had been thrown back, and that the security forces were clearing the suburbs of the rest of the rebels.

I wondered if that was true or just state propaganda. So I went to al-Midan, where the fighting had been very intense. There were many soldiers and military vehicles in the centre of the district. The officer in charge of the central police station welcomed me and showed me around. There were still gunfights going on around 500 metres away, and I heard a heavy machine gun. I was brought in an armoured vehicle to the fighting zone at the edge of al-Midan. Traces of the war were everywhere. Soldiers were firing from cover at a building where rebel snipers were holed up. We had to move quickly from house to house, some of which were still smoking. The dead bodies of rebels lay in the street. The face of at least one was obviously non-Arabic; it seemed he had come from Afghanistan. I wondered who had paid his way, and what exactly he had been fighting for.

Street scene in al-Midan

While we were still looking at the dead bodies, a small transport vehicle came along the street, loaded with the rebels’ arms and equipment. The driver showed me what they had found in the FSA control centre – huge amounts of ammunition, automatic guns, machine guns, and Syrian Army uniforms, used to discredit the state and confuse civilians. I wondered if all this had been staged for Western journalists; had the army prepared a ‘stage set’ for my benefit? Yet when I arrived, the fighting had still been going on, and no-one had had time to ‘prepare’ dead bodies; the area was ‘fresh’. I believe what I witnessed was authentic.

I met Foreign Ministry spokesman Dr. Jihad Makdissi on a day when he was dealing with what Al-Jazeera was calling the “Massacre of Trimseh”. Al Jazeera had claimed that the regime had slaughtered more than 200 civilians in the village, but later on it emerged that there had been a fight between the army and the FSA. Dr. Makdissi, who studied in Britain and speaks fluent English, repeated patiently over and over again in press conferences the facts – the security forces had killed 37 rebel fighters and two civilians in an attack on the village, which the rebels had been using as a base to launch attacks on other areas. He maintained believably that contrary to Al-Jazeera’s claims, government forces had not used planes, helicopters, tanks or artillery – and that the heaviest weapons used by the Army were rocket-propelled grenades.

I left Damascus on 21 July, to head back to Lebanon. I planned to go by car again. Several Syrians warned me that the journey would be dangerous, and that the border with Lebanon would be thronged by refugees. But when I asked them the sources of their ‘information’, they were always Al Jazeera and Al Arabia TV-news. So I decided to test this for myself, although I confess to feeling apprehensive. But sure enough, once again the highway to the border was calm, without much traffic. My passport was examined at a few Army checkpoints, and that was it. At the border station there were admittedly many people, but there was no chaos, nor masses of refugees. The whole exit procedure took no more than 20 minutes.

A final surprise came at the Lebanese side of the border. There I saw the first time the black-white-green rebel flag waving in the wind. Immediately beyond the Lebanese border station were a dozen Western TV teams, waiting for the ‘refugees’. Some of them were paying interviewees in dollars for short interviews; and the wilder the story, the better they seemed to like it. It seems that reality doesn’t mean all that much when the Western media talk about Syria.

MANUEL OCHSENREITER is Editor-in-chief of the national-conservative German monthly newsmagazine ZUERST! (www.zuerst.de)

Editor’s Note

1. There are apparently two organizations claiming this name, but whatever their other differences they share a passionate hatred of the Assad regime which must call into question their credibility. DT

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27 Responses to Dispatch from Damascus – guest article by Manuel Ochsenreiter

  1. Rafif Jouejati says:

    And how much did the regime pay YOU for this drivel? Shame on you.

    • Maxime says:

      To rafif: you think that all people may be baught like you!!!!

    • Peter says:

      In the Islamic world it is called “payed”, but the true mening of this word is independant,

    • Dragon says:

      Why do you think he was allowed into Syria in the first place? If you hadn’t noticed, the Syrian government doesn’t really hand out very many journalist visas.

      Oh, where it says “the national-conservative German monthly newsmagazine ZUERST!”, they really mean national-socialist right-wing extremist monthly rag.
      Zuerst means ‘first’. As in ‘Germany first’.

      • Nina says:

        @ Dragon: your first sentence shows how well “informed” you are (sarcasm intended) about the number of journalist visas issued. Accusing the “other” of being on the payroll is always easier, isn’t it? Well, unless you have proof, I’d suggest you stay clear of assumptions and accusation as it only makes you look like an idiot!
        Oh, as for the second part, spare us the NAZI extremist cliche bollocks, really boring mate.

    • Nemesis says:

      Thanks, Manuel!

    • JP Leonard says:

      I probably wouldn’t agree with all of the author’s views, but in politics, no two people agree on everything, unless they are toeing some party line.

      That isn’t the point. Ochsenreiter has provided a valuable corrective to the prevailing hysteria fomented by the war party.

      His one observation at the end, about the cash sale of wild stories to TV-Land, was a delight that made the whole article well worth reading.

      Now Ms. Rafif Jouejati, since you bring up the subject. How much are YOU paid for your services as coordinator for the so-called Free Syrian Army (I’d rather say Foreign Subversive Army), from your perch in McLean, Virginia — home of the CIA?

      And wasn’t it NGO’s like yours that instigated this whole rebellion and bloody war? Handsomely paid by the State Dep’t? Come on. Admit it.

  2. I got paid 3 shekels personally by Assad for writing pro-Syrian things on the internets

    • Peter says:

      Please show us the proof, as always the proof is missing

    • The Big Kebab says:

      I got paid 3000 shekels by the House of Saud for going on Jihad in Syria attempting to create the Sunni-state of Syria. But Bashar al-Assad is the akbar man.. well well better luck somewhere else then..

  3. Parviziyi says:

    My thanks for the above report. I purred at the nugget that Manuel Ochsenreiter did not see a rebel flag at all in the nine days he was in Syria.

    Manuel Ochsenreiter says “Western policymakers have a woefully wrong notion of Syria’s “Arab Spring”. There is little or no liberal, progressive opposition.” What I say myself is subtly different because I say it positively: “The liberal, progressive people in Syria support Assad.” And while I’m at it, I’ll add that so too do the preponderance of professional workers of all kinds, and better educated people in general, including the better educated who are conservative in their religion. Most of the poorly educated are and will be following the lead of the better educated.

  4. neretva'43 says:

    It would be terrible that Syria, and any other country for that matter, to adopt the Western political practice called “democracy” and something what they callliberal, progressive opposition. All that inevitably lead to majority and minority at that point mulitfaith countries are doomed.
    Yet, there is nothing substantial about it, except, it is empty shell and merely form of oligarchical structured society where elite of majority looting everybody else.

  5. Voegele says:

    First of all thanks for your report. Today, the world begins to look what’s going on in Syria. Foreign terrorists of Islam, paid for by Saudi Arabia and the United States be brought to Syria to fight against Syrians. Even heavy weapons are now being shipped from Turkey to Syria. This is not a civil war but an invasion of a country.

  6. AlexisWolf says:

    The fog of lies is lifting……..

  7. Maartenkh says:

    Amazing to read this story. What is the truth about Syria? Are we all being mis-informed by ‘news’-eager journalists who are looking to bring the ‘most attractive’ news on the front page?
    ‘Dog bites man’ is no news. ‘Man bites dog’ is! Assad is a dictator in our wenstern view, but what is the real probem? Dictatorship is one way of organizing leadership. Does the people of Syria suffer more of Assad than the American people of Obama? Probably not. Half of the population of USA hates “ObamaCare” and calls it “Communism” to give it a deeper impact.
    I am not sure that we (as the western world) should interfer in Syria. Is it better now in Lybia or Egypt compare to the pre-dictator period? Moammar al-Qadhafi was a dangerous idiot. Was Berlusconi much better? If a people is suffering structurally under a regime, do “we” have to interfer?

  8. Trix says:

    As always, there are 2 sides to every coin. So my gratitude to the reporter for showing us the other side.

    However, the idea that the United States (who else? Offcourse. Let’s say it was Israel. Or santa claus while we’re at it. The easter bunny perhaps?) is sending and paying mercinaries to occupy Syria is ludicious.
    First of all, the US is broke. Second, they have never been in a war that actually made them any money. All they ever did was lose billions. Not to mention a lot of lives. Third, is it really that hard to believe that people don’t like getting shot at while they are at a peacefull rally? And that they want to shoot back?
    Fourth, it has already been discussed in the western media that the rebel’s revolution is being highjacked by islam extremists.

    Almost all these things were said about the Egypt revolution. They weren’t egyptians rallying against the regime, it was America! Israel! The Tooth Fairy! And who has won the elections? The Muslim Brotherhood, not the political parties any Western country would’ve preferred. So why would they supposedly spend millions on roughless mercinaries to rebel, but fail to spend a couple of 1000 to screw over the elections?

    The situation is the same as in Egypt. Some people don’t agree with the regime, some people do. In some places there is fighting and rallying, other places are fine. But either way, all hate the violence. Mubarak stepped down, avoiding a lot worse. Assad in this case decided to fire on his own citizens. No president should fire bullets or grenades on his people. And that is exactly what happened in the beginning, when it was merely peacefull rallying (and it was not big enough to receive foreign attention). And offcourse the fighting isn’t everywhere, but if even the Red crescent Moon is partinally fleeing the country coz it’s not safe for them anymore to help.

    If Assad truly wanted his country back together, he should allow foreign help, because apparently he’s not doing a very good job managing the rebels himself, now is he? Not all the of the country is falling apart, but enough people have suffered from the consequences. It’s been going on since March! An end should be put to this at once.

    p.s. 20,000 dead? According to the UN it’s “only” 5,000. As if that isn’t enough.

  9. mr x says:

    lets call the assad government what it is: a brutal dictatorship, and lets call the western media what it is: totally biased and spreading false information. Both sides are wrong and both dont care about the vital factor in this conflict: the people, the people of syria. Trying to choose a side in this conflict is choosing between two evils, so all i can do i guess is stand aside and try to learn the truth…

    It still seems very strange to me that people yelling alluh-akbar and blowing people up are terrorists in afghanistan an iraq and in lybia and all of a sudden syria they are freedom fighters. and all the so called media let it be left or right are totally selling us the line of the us and the un.

    All this just proves to me once more that human rights are just an excuse for invading and killing people, and also makes clear to me the definition of terrorism. “it’s terrorism when THEY do it” when we do it, its intervention or just cause or liberation or regime change……

    just my thoughts.

  10. Ernst says:

    I guess what is written is true. It looks similar to à story front à Dutch correspondent years ago. Also know that the World is getting ready to get ready to strike towards Israël. Yes indeed some Arabic groups are dangerious but also look af Western finanancial parties. The latter is working towards one World Government and that means that they have to create à reason. THE reason is fear and lack. This is what is happening also in our own small worlds. I.e. Marketing and commercials do the same. Cinema and media is making us believe fiction.

  11. LEvi says:

    Interesting that you say that not much is going on, while at the same time you mention 450 soldiers die per month.
    Now these are modern equiped soldiers. Imagine the losses on the other side, no matter who they are.
    How can not much be going on?
    It is true that in any war, normal live continues in some places and fights are only on certain other places. It is not milions of people fighting in one spot. How can they? In the old days people just went on with the harvest while on the other field an official battle was fought ‘conquering’ the whole country.
    You make conclusions on limited information. A bit like. “Hey how can there be oil in Saudi Arabia? I was there and did not see any oil on the floor anywhere.”
    Nice article, but very naive…

  12. Tromp says:

    Having lived and worked in Syria I know this country very well. I also know how complex this country is: Christians of all kinds, two Muslim groups that hate eachother since the 8th century, and Alawites, a more or less liberal Shiite denomination. What happens now is nothing more than a Sunnite attempt to grasp for power and found a Sunnite Islamic state. Western idealists think that words like “democracy”, cried out by the rebels, mean for them the same as for us. The 18th century Enlightment had never showed up there, not in the state and not in the mind of the population. The West should have learned from what happened in Libya, “democratic” African republics and, not far back in history, former Yugoslavia, and what is going on in Egypt now.
    And by the way, why did the West not censure Bahrein (American naval base) that suppressed an uprising with the help of Saudi troops, not Saudi Arabia (oil) of Kuweit (oil too)?
    “Don’t speak to me of freedom, if you mean oil” (Sir Henry Deterding to the American representative in Athens (1922).
    In war, truth is the first victim, and that goes for the “democratic” opposition in Syria too. It is good that the rebel desinformation becomes unveiled.

  13. Pingback: Dispatch from Damascus | Friends of Syria

  14. mr x says:

    do you have a source for that?? i am interested in learning more about this.

  15. Pingback: Syria: The Tyranny of Official Narratives « crimson satellite

  16. Pingback: The Tyranny of Official Narratives

  17. David Ashton says:

    Truth is the first casualty in war, and no less in civil war. I have no personal expertise whatever in this area (how many honest observers do?) but came across the following items (among too many) that might be relevantly informative, and which might prompt comment from others genuinely familiar with the multiple complexities of the area:
    (1) John R. Bradley, “Sinai strike signals deluge after Assad,” Jewish Chronicle, 10 August.
    (2) Tony Cartalucci, “US officialy arming extremists in Syria,” Global Research, 18 May.
    (3) Alex Newman, “US-backed Syrian opposition linked to Bilderberg, CFR, Goldman Sachs & George Soros,” New American, 16 July.
    Any refutation of such material should avoid smear-words or ad hominem reactions.

  18. Johny J says:

    Thanks for a well written article. I’m so tired of all the hard angled pro Islamic “Arab Spring” crap in all the other newspapers. I hope Bashar al-Assad manages to straighten things out.

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