Dispatch from Damascus
Guest article by MANUEL OCHSENREITER
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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)
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