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Syria 1st-Hand: A Month on the Front Line of "Bloody Stalemate" in Damascus (Tomasevic)

One of Goran Tomasevic's photos of the fighting at the Ain Tarma checkpoint, 30 January 2013

Photojournalist Goran Tomasevic writes for 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 machine gun 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.

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, swathed in layers of cotton and leather jackets, a few thousand unshaven men, many from nearby peasant villages, some who deserted Assad's army, defend a patchwork of 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 Shi'ite 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 - roughly "Syrian Freedom" --- mounted in Ain Tarma on January 30, aiming to take over or at least damage an army checkpoint further up the lane.

I photographed one two-man fire team crouch against a breeze-block garden wall, about 50 meters from their target.

In blue jeans, sneakers 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 AK-47 automatic 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. Realizing the casualty was gravely hurt, two more came up and they dragged the man's inert bulk back across the street, through a narrow gap to relative safety.

Battlefield first-aid is helpless in the face of single shot to the belly. The man died in minutes, his gut ripped through and his blood warming the bare concrete floor. But there was no time to mourn --- the army was alerted to the squad's presence.

As the rebels regrouped, a tank shell struck the deserted building, sending shattered concrete and dust raining down on us and the survivors ran for cover, ready to fight another day.

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