Insight: Battle for Damascus: frozen but bloody

Wed Feb 20, 2013 2:03am EST
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By Goran Tomasevic

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Rebel fighters in Damascus are disciplined, skilled and brave.

In a month on the frontline, I saw them defend a swathe 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 neighborhoods just east of the city centre - and indeed made little effort to do so - 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 machinegun fire.

As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a sniper's 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 January 14, 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.   Continued...

A Free Syrian Army fighter (L) looks at his comrade as he gets shot by sniper fire in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus in this January 30, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files