Syria may be taking steps to get rid of its chemical weapons, but the civil war, which has claimed more than 120,000 lives, is hardly over.
The fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the rebels continues, even in the streets of the capital, Damascus, where whole neighborhoods have been destroyed.
The BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet joined Here & Now’s Robin Young from Damascus. Doucet tweeted several photos this week (see slideshow above), and described sections of the capital as a “wasteland.”
“You can go to neighborhoods that look like earthquake zones where not a single building, house or a shop has been left without gaping holes, pockmarked with bullet holes, completely blackened, roofs torn off and not a single person to be found,” Doucet said. “And then you walk to the next neighborhood and its lively and bustling and people — with difficulty, it has to be said — but they are still going about their daily lives.”
Doucet says Damascus was previously somewhat shielded from the devastation that other towns have faced during the war, but she says, “even here there is growing hardship and growing devastation.”
Part of the reason for Damascus’ new vulnerability is that rebel fighters either live in neighborhoods in Damascus, or have captured control of them.
“The government has intensified attacks against those areas, both with the bombardments that we hear night and day here, but also they are resorting to new tactics,” Doucet said. “It’s called — and it’s a terrible, terrible slogan — it’s called surrender or starve …. They’re trying to starve the rebel fighters into giving up or leaving that neighborhood. But what happens, of course, is that civilians pay the heaviest of prices.”
Doucet describes the situation in Moadamiyeh, a suburb of Damascus, that had been under siege since March as particularly exemplary of the new tactic. It was only on Oct. 26 that the residents were allowed to leave during a temporary ceasefire.
“Several women, exhausted, collapsing in tears, said to us, ‘We haven’t seen a piece of bread in months, for nine months. We’ve been eating grass and leaves,’” Doucet said.
However, rebels use the same surrender or starve tactic to force government held areas into submission.
“Sadly there are no angels in this war,” Doucet said. “Everyone in this deepening war is using whatever they can to get more advantage on the battlefield.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Let's go to Syria now. While the government of Bashar al-Assad government, has taken steps to get rid of chemical weapons, there is, as we'll hear, a new, very low-tech weapon being introduced: a blockade that prevent people from getting food.
The fighting between President Bashir Assad's forces and insurgents continues even in the streets of the capital, Damascus, where whole neighborhoods have been destroyed. The BBC's Lyse Doucet is in Damascus, and Lyse, we'll have pictures posted at hereandnow.org, but if you could try to describe, what does it looks like there?
LYSE DOUCET: It's absolutely shocking, Robin, because two imagine that in the capital of a country that you can go to neighborhoods that look like earthquake zones, where not a single building, house or a shop has been left without gaping holes, pockmarked with bullet holes, completely blackened, roofs torn off and not a single person to be found.
And then you walk to the next neighborhood and its lively and bustling and people with difficulty, it has to be said, but they are still going about their daily lives. We went to one such neighborhood that was like a ghost town yesterday, Tadamon, which had seen intense fighting for weeks a few months ago. Literally you had government troops shooting from windows on one side of the street, and you had the rebel fighters on the other shooting at each other.
When we left it, we were back into a place where there was shawarma shops with the meat sizzling, people buying fruit and vegetables, kids coming home from school, and it was just breathtaking. And yet Syrians have gotten used to this. And I think many people have become used to the all-too-sad images of whole towns and other parts of Syria that have been flattened in the war.
I have seen some of those towns. But to find it in Damascus, as well, where there is a bit of a bubble in the center, but even here there is growing hardship and growing devastation.
YOUNG: Well, just why would there be one neighborhood and not another? Is that neighborhood home to more of the insurgent fighters? I mean, how does it work?
DOUCET: Well, indeed, this is the problem. And as I speak, this is a day where again we've had intense shelling. Many of the suburbs on the south and on the eastern front, and some parts of the west, as well, opposition fighters have been able to move in, or they actually live in those neighborhoods and have taken up guns. And the government has intensified attacks against those areas, both with the bombardments that we hear night and day here, but also they are resorting to new tactics.
It's called - and it's a terrible, terrible slogan - surrender or starve. In other words, they have been blocking off neighborhoods, not even letting a piece of bread in. They're trying to starve the rebel fighters into giving up or leaving that neighborhood. But what happens, of course, is that civilians pay the heaviest of prices.
When we were outside Moadamiyeh earlier this week, where thousands were allowed to leave, they had been under siege since March, and several women, exhausted, collapsing in tears, said to us we haven't seen a piece of bread for months, for nine months. We've been eating grass and leaves.
YOUNG: This is the new weapon in this war, and you spoke to an officer in the Syrian army and asked him whether it's a just tactic. Let's listen to him.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is it better to destroy the whole country? They are Al-Qaida. They are Jabhat al-Nusra. They are (unintelligible), you know. And we...
DOUCET: But why not let the food and the medical supplies in?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because the rebels get the supplies. I'll not allow any piece of a bread to go for rebels or fighters, one fighter rebel/ Why, to kill me and kill my brothers and my children?
YOUNG: So we hear him say he won't give one piece of bread to a rebel to sort of starve him off in the hopes of saving his own children. But you say both sides are doing this?
DOUCET: Of course the government is in control of the majority of populated areas, but in those areas, we've seen, particularly in the north of Syria, that there have been neighborhoods, particularly in Aleppo, where the opposition forces have also shut off neighborhoods controlled by the government, not letting the government bring in food and medical supplies to those areas because as well it wants to force people not to side with the government. It wants to depopulate areas because once you do, that means you can go in all guns firing, and that's what the government wants to do, as well.
So sadly there are no angels in this war. One side or the other may use the tactic more than the other because they have much more means to do it, but everyone in this deepening war is using whatever they can to get more advantage on the battlefield.
YOUNG: Well, what the officer that we just heard from also said, that the rebels represent Al-Qaida. This was something the Assad regime has been saying all along, and as the civil war went on and neighboring Lebanon's Hezbollah came in to fight on the side of the regime, Al-Qaida forces did come in to fight on the side of the insurgents, although sometimes against the insurgents. How is the role of Al-Qaida playing out from your point of view?
DOUCET: Well, there are groups who have some affiliation to Al-Qaida, who are known to be fighting on the battlefield. There is a growing number also of foreign fighters who are coming, it has to be from an astonishing number of countries around the world and not just the places you'd normally think of like Chechnya or Afghanistan or Pakistan.
We've heard of them coming from Sweden, from Belgium, from Canada, from Australia. They're coming to fight jihad here. There are other groups, Islamist groups, who have no linkages to Al-Qaida, they're - first and foremost they're worried about Syria. But the opposition has so many different faces. Don't forget there's what the West calls the moderate opposition, which they're trying to arm.
And then there's the peaceful protestors who began this more than two and a half years ago simply calling from more democracy. On the other side, President Assad has even more powerful friends: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. They are doing everything they can both militarily, economically to help the regime.
And so we often say that this war in many ways is not about Syria anymore. It's about a regional conflict and also a proxy war, even a new Cold War, which brings in Moscow and Washington, as well.
YOUNG: Well, there's supposed to be a peace conference in Geneva later this month, perhaps a well-intentioned diplomatic effort, but it seems impossible at this point. I mean the Syrians that you speak with, do they have any sense that there might be any end to this conflict?
DOUCET: Most Syrians you speak to just say we want this war to end. They are weary from this war. We spoke to the deputy foreign minister here, Faisal Mekdad. He said they're ready to go to that peace conference, the Geneva II Conference, as it's known. They're ready, he said, to go any minute.
But on the opposition side, it is in complete disarray over who should be at the table, what should be the objectives. Most opposition leaders say they will not go unless it's clear that President Assad steps down. he has no intention of doing that. And on the battlefield, the rebel commanders, they say we don't want anything to do with this conference and that anyone who goes is a traitor.
So not much hope, but I did speak to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy, today and he said he believed they were definitely making progress, but he wasn't sure if they were making enough progress to actually hold the conference on November 23 as was planned. There is talk it could slip to December or January. But it is, however, becoming a symbol of a process that looks like it's going to be in deadlock for some time to come.
YOUNG: The BBC's Lyse Doucet in Damascus, Syria, thank you so much.
DOUCET: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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