x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Civilians trapped in Syria's crossfire

Fighting the regime is tough enough, but rebels are also struggling to win the battle for hearts and minds. Phil Sands reports from Damascus.

The FSA is heavily dependent on the neighbourhoods in which it operates, with rebel fighters often drawn from local families and residents providing shelter and information. Harbouring rebels, however,  exposes civilians to huge risks.
The FSA is heavily dependent on the neighbourhoods in which it operates, with rebel fighters often drawn from local families and residents providing shelter and information. Harbouring rebels, however, exposes civilians to huge risks.

DAMASCUS // As the battle for Damascus intensifies, so do reservations about the Free Syrian Army and its tactics.

Civilians complain they are increasingly trapped between hammer and anvil as insurgents and regime forces fight for supremacy over the capital.

Lightly armed and facing a much stronger conventional military force, the FSA has adopted guerrilla tactics to survive. That involves a heavy dependence on the neighbourhoods in which it operates, with rebel fighters often drawn from local families and residents providing shelter and information, while labyrinthine urban landscapes offer some level of camouflage and protection.

exposes civilians to huge riHarbouring rebels, however, exposes civilians to huge risks.

"Many ordinary people do not support this regime any more but they are not all happy with the Free Army either," said a resident of Saqba, a working-class district to the east of Damascus that has been heavily involved in the uprising, and repeatedly hit by regime attacks.

"The Free Army moves between our homes and the regime responds by shelling all of us," the father of two said. "There is no political solution to this now, there will be war until one side is beaten by the other and the civilians will have to suffer the most until that time comes."

The rebels would not have lasted this long if they did not enjoy significant grassroots support, but if the battle for Syria's capital city is in part a battle for the hearts and minds of its population, as the war grinds on there are signs the rebels are coming up short, even in the largely working-class suburbs that make up their strongholds.

A regular pattern has emerged for the conflict in Damascus and its densely populated suburbs, one that wreaks significant destruction in the districts where the bulk of the fighting takes place.

Usually, the FSA becomes established in a neighbourhood, usually to protect anti-regime demonstrators from the security forces, who have arrested and killed thousands of protesters nationwide.

Eventually the armed rebels grow powerful enough to hold their own against local secret police units, breaking the direct hold of the central authorities over the area.

The regime then imposes a siege and deploys loyalist army and security forces, equipped with heavy weapons, including mortars, artillery, tanks and attack helicopters, all of which are thrown at the neighbourhood in an effort to beat back the rebels and reassert government control.

A stalemate then emerges, with neither side able to comprehensively vanquish the other. As the fighting intensifies, more buildings and infrastructure gets damaged, the economy breaks down, health services and fuel supplies are interrupted and large numbers of civilians flee for safer areas.

In some places, including the Yarmouk district in southern Damascus, residents have formed armed protection committees to keep both regime forces and the FSA out of their buildings.

When fighting starts, men living in apartment blocks pick up knives, clubs and chains, and stand guard at the entrance, preventing anyone not living in the building from entering.

"This is not about the politics of the revolution, people just need to protect their families and their property so they want to keep both sides out, that way the other side has no cause to attack," said a Yarmouk resident in one of the protected buildings.

While many rebels insist they have the backing of a majority of the population, some acknowledge the reality is complex, with civilians often pulled in opposite directions over the FSA presence.

"If we're being honest, some of the people are with us and some are against us," said a leading FSA fighter in Dummar, a district in north-west Damascus.

A long time resident of the area, the rebel, aged 31, said mortar bombardments, army raids and heavy disruption of public services, including electricity and gas supplies, had really begun in the centre of Dummar after armed rebel units were established there.

Earlier peaceful protests had brought a violent and deadly response from security forces, but not to the degree it has now reached, he said.

"At first we were very proud, we had our rifles and protected the demonstrations and the secret police and shabiha could no longer hurt the people, we were very pleased with ourselves," he said.

"That was our mistake, we should have been more careful about it, because after we did that, the attacks were too powerful for us to stop and some of the people were angry with us, they said we had made their lives worse, not protected them."

Health services have halted in Dummar, pregnant women are often unable to get proper antenatal care, children are no longer vaccinated and may be unable to restart school when the new term begins later this month.

"People are in an impossible position, I am sure they will not abandon us because we are their brothers, sons and cousins and they do not want this regime any more, but life is much harder for them now," the FSA fighter said.

FSA members in Damascus also admitted that some fighting under their banner had been involved in stealing and other criminal activity. Such acts, as well as FSA executions and abuse of prisoners documented by rights groups, have tarnished opposition efforts to convince undecided civilians that they have the moral high ground.

"One man was not allowed to take his belongings from his flat after is had been occupied by the FSA in Tadamun, it was only after he bought them ten mattresses to sleep on and a fridge to keep their food from spoiling that they let him in to take away his furniture," said an aid worker in the capital.

"That kind of behaviour wins them no friends."

In another case, she said a businessman had been ordered to pay 500,000 Syrian pounds (Dh27,500) to the rebels by armed men who turned up at his factory, warning the premises would be burnt down if he refused. He bartered with them to accept 50,000 pounds, only for the commander of the local FSA unit to tell him he had been tricked into paying by thieves who had nothing to do with the insurgents.

Syria's uprising has cut across boundaries of class, sect and ethnicity. Yet in the capital rebels are struggling to gain permanent footholds in symbolic central neighbourhoods, lacking the manpower, firepower and unified widespread consent from local residents they would require to enter and attempt to hold ground for any length of time against regime forces.

In July rebels launched a more or less coordinated assault in Damascus, which was quickly and destructively suppressed by loyalist army units. Despite government claims of victory the FSA was far from broken - heavy, regular fighting continues across the capital - but it did fall back, returning to hit-and-run attacks in the city centre.

As rebels now regroup and prepare for a second major assault on the heart of Damascus, they are attempting to marshal forces from outlying suburbs, where the bulk of the city's population lives, as well as from other parts of the country. They do not talk of relying on FSA units forged in the capital's centre.

A similar plan was used in Aleppo, where rebels from outlying rural areas have formed the backbone of the FSA's efforts. City residents have conspicuously not flocked to take up arms in pursuit of the rebel cause, and Aleppo has suffered widespread damage in prolonged fighting there, a fact not lost on Damascenes.

"After 17 months of this uprising, no one in Damascus has been won over by the arguments or the violence of the other side, the very anti-regime and the very-pro regime are sticking to their beliefs and the rest have not moved decisively in either direction," said a Syrian analyst in the capital.

"Unless that equation dramatically changes, the battle for Damascus will be a long and costly war of attrition."

psands@thenational.ae