As the violence in Syria intensifies, the number of foreign journalists on the ground remains small and even more so in the country’s now highly dangerous capital of Damascus.
FRANCE 24 journalists Matthieu Mabin and Sofia Amara were the only foreign journalists who managed to enter Damascus in recent days, reaching the Tadamoun neighbourhood, which is under almost constant shelling by regime forces.
Matthieu Mabin presents an exclusive report from inside the capital and spoke to FRANCE 24 about the difficult task of simply getting to Syria, asymmetrical warfare, and who holds sway in Damascus.
FRANCE 24: How did you get in to Damascus?
Matthieu Mabin: We entered the country through Lebanon, from the Bekaa Valley and through a Lebanese border village. We used back roads that were frequented by Lebanese and Syrian smugglers long before the uprising began.
These days the smugglers trade mostly in medicines, but increasingly they carry arms and ammunition.
Once we were in Syria we headed for Damascus with the help of rebels in many towns and villages. We saw rebel fighters everywhere we went. The first town we went through was Zabadani, one of the first towns in Syria to rise up against the regime and not far from Damascus.
Getting in to the capital was extremely difficult. It took us eight days to get there, only to stay for six. The city is completely surrounded by government forces and we had to pass through five lines of security to get in. The closer you get to Damascus, the tighter the security, to the point where getting through without being caught is almost impossible. We used secret routes that the rebels use to send through reinforcements in men and weapons from their bases, such as Zabadani and other small towns on the outskirts of Damascus.
The rebel fighters have various ruses to slip through the army’s net, including holes smashed through the walls of houses, allowing them to move from house to house without being seen. They are also using other methods that we will not describe for fear of endangering them.
On the road to Damascus we came across one army checkpoint. The situation escalated and our driver, a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), turned the car around to avoid being caught. The government troops opened fire on us. This kind of incident is happening daily all around Damascus.
F24: What can you report of what you saw in Damascus?
MM: The primary reason for going in was to get a different angle on events from what the regime – as well as the rebels – were describing.
As soon as you enter the city you can see straight away that this is a close-quarters conflict. What we saw in the city is far removed from what is being described in the Western media. Back in Paris, I thought that the rebels were engaged in an operation that was far too ambitious for its small means and that it was impossible for them to confront the Syrian army on an even footing.
I was wrong. This is not a pitched battle. In the face of the hugely powerful Syrian army, the rebel advantage is its mobility. It is the archetype of asymmetrical warfare.
We were able to get a good look at the way the FSA is organised. Contrary to what many outside the country believe, there is fighting in every district of the city. Neighbourhoods turn into battlegrounds one after the other, often for a very short period of time. But it is always the FSA taking the initiative.
We were housed in an up-market neighbourhood, where there were several thousand rebel fighters. This was where the senior officers were planning their operations. The presence of the FSA is no secret, and the Syrian army shells the area on a daily basis. Throughout Damascus and the surrounding region, empty houses are filled with FSA fighters, and some of the city’s richer inhabitants are giving active material support to the rebellion.
There are sleeper cells everywhere, even in Bab Touma, the Christian district.
It must also be understood that the conflict is not a clear-cut situation of loyalists versus rebels. The regular army comprises a broad spectrum of Syrians with different agendas, from the die-hards, who will continue to fight even after the regime falls, to the lowly soldier who misses on purpose to avoid killing his fellow countrymen. There are serving officers who remain in the army but whose hearts are with the rebellion and warn the FSA of planned bombardments. On one occasion, we left a house knowing it was going to be shelled. This kind of information is constantly coming through.
I heard reports of fighting between different units of the regular army in Zabadani because some troops there did not want to engage the enemy and wanted to save lives. I also sensed in Zabadani, where the majority of government troops are Sunni, that there was an active desire to avoid confrontation.
F24: The regular army seems to have lost ground in both Damascus and also in Aleppo [Syria’s largest city] in recent weeks. Every time one fire is put out, another seems to flare up. What is the balance of forces between the two sides?
MM: It is totally unbalanced. One has to get over this idea of two standing armies facing each other. As I said, this is asymmetrical warfare, in which the regular army is facing an irregular enemy. The regime army has huge means and should be considered as largely intact. The large number of defections has not undermined its potency as a striking force. In concrete terms, what we have is one side equipped with modern strike aircraft attacking an enemy armed with rifles.
The FSA’s advantage against the regime is the sheer number of fighters and also their determination. For the most part the rebels are engaged in what they consider to be a fight to the death. They know that they have gone beyond the point of no return.
The rebel army is like a monster that feeds from each strike against its enemy. The more victims it claims, the stronger the FSA becomes, in terms of manpower, reach, weapons and money. We were often struck by the large number of rebel fighters and above all their diversity. There are officers, senior civil servants, traders, rich middle classes and farmers. The rebellion is a picture of the spectrum of Syrian society. Former regular soldiers train shopkeepers in weapons handling. In the year and a half since the uprising began, many of these soldiers have become experts in guerrilla warfare.
F24: So what is the current situation in Damascus?
MM: Contrary to what the regime is telling us, the capital has not in any way been cleared of rebel forces. It is always the FSA taking the initiative and the regular army can only respond. The rebels hold far more of the capital that the regime will admit.
In certain districts of Damascus, FSA fighters wander the streets carrying weapons in full view. This would have been unimaginable just one month ago.
There are well-hidden FSA sleeper cells in every neighbourhood ready to go out and fight on the orders of their superiors. They can appear and then disappear with ease.
All the rebels are getting ready for the crucial battle that will soon play out in Damascus. The battle in Aleppo is important, but it is just a mirror of what is going to happen in the capital.