Damascus suburb pounded to dust in deadly battle

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

A Free Syrian Army fighter looks at houses destroyed in a suburb of Damascus. Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

Syrians are proud of Damascus; proud in their belief that it is the oldest inhabited city in the world.

But Damascus is now losing its inhabitants at an alarming rate. Take the suburb of Daraya. Two years ago it was home to around 200,000 people. It was a bustling place. The population now is estimated to be around 10,000, at most. Many of those, say activists, are rebels.

They are there fighting a deadly battle for this strategic suburb. Daraya is being pounded to dust. It is itself a victim of a war that is swallowing its people.

A week ago the Syrian government said its forces had captured most of Daraya from rebels who've been holding most of the suburb for the last year or so. "It will be safe within a few days,” one official said.

One week on, it's clear they are not capturing it and it is not safe.

I spent hours today circling Daraya in a car. I'd like to have got in but the four main access roads are blocked by army checkpoints and the whole area is crawling with troops.

I watched a sustained barrage of shelling by the army, the munitions landing in one small area, plumes of white and black smoke rising and mushrooming up into the clear blue sky. On several occasions there were multiple explosions, loud and clear.

Security personnel inspect wreckage after bomb exploded in Damascus in 2012. Credit: REUTERS/Khaled al Hariri

As well as shelling, we could hear the unmistakable sound of a warplane attacking targets below. Then at around three o’clock, while we were in a building, trying to access the roof to film the attacks, a MiG warplane swooped in and unleashed several weapons, violently shaking the building which was at least a kilometre from the impact.

The MiG swooped several times, its roar distinct and terrifying for many underneath, each time leaving white smoke trails, and plumes of dust and smoke on the ground.

Just over an hour later the Damascus Military Council, a group claiming to speak for the rebels, said a MiG pilot had defected and attacked three army positions in the Daraya area. It claimed fifteen soldiers from the 4th Syrian Army brigade had been killed.

I have no way of proving that what I saw and heard was a defecting pilot launching his last attack. We may know more later. But an attack of some sort it clearly was.

A Syrian opposition flag is seen in the al-Tadamun area of Damascus. Credit: REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout

What I do know is what I've seen from the area, posted online today. It shows the gruesome aftermath of a violent attack, purportedly the result of the shelling in Daraya. It shows bodies in a street, covered with cloth, then uncovered for the camera. It's hard to know how many are dead, so mutilated are the corpses. But something has hit them hard. Locals claim at least thirteen people have been killed today in airstrikes and shelling. Of course I can't prove that these videos are what they say they are, an accurate account of a sunny Saturday afternoon in a Damascus suburb.

Two other videos, dated today and yesterday show the shelling of Daraya. The noise of multiple impacts on one is deafening, buildings in the foreground clearly hit and damaged.

I have seen Daraya pounded.

Buildings near Damascus damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet. Credit: REUTERS/Kenan Al-Derani/Shaam News Network/Handout

It is crucial because, lying at the Western edge of Damascus near a military airport, it is a gateway to the city centre. Both sides are fighting furiously for it because to lose it would be a huge blow. For the regime, it sits near military bases and is only a few kilometres below President Assad's home and the compounds of his guard and army.

One activist says more than a thousand people have been killed recently in the battle for control of it.

As I write I can still hear the explosions from the direction of Daraya. The war there is intense. It is not "safe". And it won't be for some time.