Syria's rebels and soldiers agree: military strikes will change nothing
Syria's rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's soldiers agree on next to nothing. They've killed each other by the tens of thousands in a war mired in stalemate. But they're now agreed on one thing. The military strike America is preparing will not change anything.
By Bill Neely, Damascus
5:25PM BST 07 Sep 2013
For the rebels, the attack will be too little, too late; a strike so long delayed that it will destroy only empty buildings and broken warplanes.
For the government and its troops, it would be a petulant volley of Western frustration, born of the lies America has told the world about Assad's responsibility for firing chemical weapons and of its determination to overthrow him.
The soldiers I meet on the front lines are defiant. "When they send their rockets we'll shoot them out of the sky," says one grizzled fighter, raising his battered Kalashnikov rifle in the air. When I ask them what weapons they have to take down the cruise missiles likely to be fired, they assure me they have secret weapons that will do the job.
For all the bravado, soldiers and citizens of the capital are watching events with growing concern. There are reports that a military radar system has been dismantled at Damascus International Airport; that missiles, tanks and aircraft have already been hidden; that Intelligence and Defence buildings have been emptied of vital computers. The Information Ministry has a new satellite television set-up in case the State Broadcasting building is attacked.
On Mount Qassioun, the hilltop overlooking Damascus, there are few soldiers to be seen, which is odd, because it is the site of huge military bases and of the artillery positions that have pounded suburbs like Daraya and Ghouta, where hundreds died in the chemical weapons attack.
One army commander trained in missiles at Mount Qassioun's base told me the Americans might hit the mountain but the soldiers and the key equipment would be deep inside; the cruise missiles would not penetrate.
Around the swimming pools of the rich areas of Damascus, the middle class and business leaders, or at least those of them who haven't chosen to flee, predict the unintended consequences of an American raid. If it destroys enough of the planes, airfields, helicopters and equipment that has given Assad a clear military advantage over the rebels, they say, America might give al-Qaeda linked groups the opening they need to push on to the capital and take down the whole regime. Many Christians and Sunnis, as well as Assad's key Alawite supporters, are concerned that the secular Syria they remember may be destroyed by an Islamist offensive on the back of American missiles.
But most believe the American strike will achieve little. Command buildings may be struck but the commanders are unlikely to be inside. It has been a week since I heard a MiG warplane fly over the capital, once a regular sound. No-one imagines they're still on the runways. As one rebel put it "the Americans will scratch the surface, hit five per cent of the regime's power and save face. That won't save us from another attack."
Meanwhile, the street fighting and the killing goes on. In Tadamon, a southern suburb of Damascus, I watched intense gun battles, bullets taking chunks off a mosque underneath pro-Assad fighters who've made 400 yards of progress against rebels in a year. One of the fighters is Abu Issa, 70, dressed in full camouflage. On a street strewn with bullet casings and stinking of rotting animals, he fires volleys of shots at the rebel positions just 50 yards away and breathes deeply as he walks back towards me. "I fought the Israelis in '67 and '73," he says proudly. "The Americans can shoot their missiles but they'll get nowhere. Our real enemy is over there, on the ground - al-Qaeda!"
An educated young commander, his English good, is genuinely puzzled. "How can it be", he asks me, "that America is going to fight us, on the side of al-Qaeda? How can America be against a secular country and for Islamists who kill their prisoners and dump their bodies in a well?"