Syria's war: Nobody is really winning, there are only losers

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

A Free Syrian Army member prays next to the grave of a fellow fighter in a cemetery. Credit: Reuters/Khalil Ashaw


It's early morning and it's a holy day in Syria's capital. But war is no respecter of dawn or devotion; dense smoke is rising from several suburbs and the birdsong is punctured by the thud of falling artillery shells.

This is Damascus today; a city filled with the noise of war.

MiG warplanes swoop overhead en route to rebel targets, mortars land amid dense housing, tanks rumble through suburban streets and, now and again, suicide bombers detonate their vehicles in the hope of killing President Assad's men.

But there is a difference in the war here today, from when I last visited four months ago.

Assad's men appear to be winning, in Damascus at least.

I walked through a suburb where the front line has been pushed back six hundred yards by Government troops. That may not seem much but when every fifty yards can cost scores of men's lives, even a modest advance can be significant.

The smoke from the shelling is further away from the city than before. Rebels are less able to launch attacks on the city centre.

In their stronghold of Jobar which they have held for months around two hundred rebels are surrounded by government forces who pound them relentlessly and who believe they will retake the area soon.

Much of the fighting on Assad's side is now being done by the militiamen of the National Defence Force.

They are part time soldiers, trained and armed in forty days, whose motivation is simple and strong; to defend their districts and to drive out rebels they see as Islamist extremists.

It's thought there are around fifty thousand militia soldiers. They know their ground and are proving more adept at urban, street fighting than a regular army trained in national warfare and tank battles.

The country's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad tells me "momentum is absolutely on our side..we have new tactics,new ways of dealing with armed groups. Now we know the art of fighting them."

Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad Credit: ITV News

It's a pattern repeated in many areas of Syria. In the country's third city, Homs a key suburb, Wadi Sayeh, was retaken by Assad's men.

In the South, rebels withdrew hundreds of men from one town because they couldn't be resupplied with ammunition from Jordan.

In areas of the north, rebels are running low on arms and ammunition because some donors can't afford to keep paying for munitions two years into the war.

So is this a tipping point in the war? No.

Does it mean Assad will win? No.

It all depends on what you mean by winning.

The Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that rebels in a guerrilla war only have to avoid losing to win. But in Syria the maxim might equally apply to the Government.

President Bashar al-Assad Credit: Reuters

After Tunisia's leader fell in days, Egypt's in weeks, Libya's in months, the world assumed Assad would fall quickly. It's now been years. And he's still there.

He's there partly because of Russian and Iranian help. He receives a steady supply of weapons from both.

The latest report in the New York Times suggests Russia has now given Syria advanced anti-ship Cruise missiles, in order to deter the West from mounting a blockade or no-fly-zone against the country.

Russia is also gathering a flotilla of warships near Syria in a show of strength and support for its ally, before next month's planned peace talks in Geneva.

Russia's more conventional weapons stocks have been supplying the guns of the Government for two years.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin Credit: Reuters

Syria's armed forces are also being bolstered by men from the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, men trained and in many cases, practiced in urban warfare.

There is an ebb and flow to most wars. At the moment the Government has the flow and rebels are on the ebb. They are losing ground in the propaganda war too. Several times this week they have posted brutal videos on the internet, demonstrating their ruthlessness.

In one, an Islamist fighter, from the Jabhat al-Nusra group that is affiliated to Al Qaeda, publicly executes eleven men kneeling in front of him.

Before shooting each of them once in the head, he accuses the men of being soldiers responsible for a massacre.

It's one of two brutal execution videos posted by the Al-Nusra group in recent days.

Another, widely circulated in Syria, shows a rebel fighter from Homs cutting a hole in a dead soldiers chest, removing the heart and appearing to take a bite.

A unverified video posted online appeared to show 11 men being executed in Syria.

It may be an ancient tactic of war, to dehumanise and terrify your enemy, but the rebels are making many in the outside world queasy and ready to question whether they are worthy of further support.

Memories of smiling, flag waving, peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators have dimmed.

The supporters of Syria's initial revolution are in a quandary; their 'policy', if we can call it that, is a mess.

The US, Britain, France and others are now seriously considering sending weapons to certain, vetted, rebel groups. But which ones? Does the heart-eater's group qualify?

How can Europe or America guarantee that the arms they ship will not end up in the hands of Islamists who later turn them against the West? Just remember Benghazi and the murder of a US Ambassador in the city the West began a war to save.

Read: Cameron clarifies position on arming Syrian rebels

Inside Syria, President Assad's men may also be winning because the opposition is falling apart.

There is in truth no such thing as the Free Syrian Army. Aid organisations say they have to deal with around three hundred different rebel groups, many loosely grouped under the umbrella of the FSA. Many others are rivals of the FSA, like the al-Nusra group.

An 'army' is usually something with a command structure and a unified organisation. The FSA is nothing of the kind.

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover during clashes with Syrian Army soldiers in the Salah al- Din neighbourhood of central Aleppo Credit: Reuters

As for a political opposition to Assad, the Syrian National Coalition is a sorry bunch of squabbling exiles and mediocrities, neither national nor a united coalition.

Politicians in the West are tearing their hair out in despair at the failure of the 'opposition' to provide a credible alternative to the Assad government.

And then there's the international opposition to Assad.

An American administration dithering in the face of a seemingly insoluble crisis, haunted by intervention in Iraq, talking about an ever thickening red line on the use of chemical weapons but paralysed by the fear of arming the wrong people a year too late.

The popular head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib resigned in March. Credit: REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Britain and France pushing for the arming of rebels, Germany and Austria pointing to what they see as the folly of doing so.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia pouring arms into Syria, money that is making the Islamists of al-Nusra the most effective fighting force on the rebel side.

The Gulf states have no interest in the victory of "freedom and democracy" in Syria. As Sunni Muslim states, they want to weaken Shia-dominated nations like Syria and Iran. For many in Saudi Arabia, the advance of a Salafist-Islamist group like the black flagged Nusra Front is an added bonus.

Syria's is now a sectarian conflict. It's a regional conflict in microcosm, where Iran and Saudi Arabia face off, where Russia and the West arm wrestle, where Israel and Turkey spar for regional dominance and where Syrians die in their tens of thousands.

There have been many massacres and executions in Syria. Credit: ITV News/Michael Herrod

My old notebook records a death toll of eight thousand. That seemed astonishingly high to me, just a year ago.

Now it is ten times that and I'm no longer surprised. In fact the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK based organisation that tracks the death toll, now puts it at more than 90,000.

Syria's story today is one of massacres and executions, gruesomely recorded for history on video, of ruthless attacks by both sides, of MiG warplanes bombing men with mortars and machine guns, a chronicle of death foretold, everywhere.

President Assad may be "winning" the war now, whatever winning means. Rebels may "win" in the end by seeing him leave office.

But nobody is really winning. This is, and has been for months, an unwinnable war, deadlocked and deadly. Neither side can break through and neither side will give up.

Today in Syria, there are only losers