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On the ground in Syria

Interview: Michael Hartlep / bkMay 19, 2013

President Bashar al-Assad's troops in Syria are gaining ground. British Middle East reporter Robert Fisk met some of them when he visited the front lines earlier this month, and told DW about what he saw.

Bildnummer: 53959896 Datum: 20.04.2010 Copyright: imago/Xinhua (100420) -- DOHA, April 20, 2010 (Xinhua) -- British writer and journalist Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent of The Independent, delivers a speech for his distinguished lecture series entitled State of Denial: Western Jouralism in the Middle East , at the invitation of the Georgetown s Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS), at Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, capital of Qatar, April 20, 2010. (Xinhua/Maneesh Bakshi) (gxr) (1)QATAR-DOHA-THE INDEPENDENT-ROBERT FISK-LECTURE PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxCHN Kultur People Kunst kbdig xkg 2010 quadrat Bildnummer 53959896 Date 20 04 2010 Copyright Imago XINHUA Doha April 20 2010 XINHUA British Writer and Journalist Robert Fisk Middle East Correspondent of The Independent delivers a Speech for His Distinguished Lecture Series entitled State of Denial Western Jouralism in The Middle East AT The Invitation of The Georgetown S Center for International and Regional Studies AT Four Seasons Hotel in Doha Capital of Qatar April 20 2010 XINHUA Maneesh Bakshi 1 Qatar Doha The Independent Robert Fisk Lecture PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxCHN Culture Celebrities Art Kbdig xkg 2010 Square
Robert FiskImage: imago/Xinhua

DW: Mr. Fisk, you've just returned from Syria. What were your impressions?

Robert Fisk: What you find is that there are large areas which have been destroyed, large areas which are largely depopulated, and large areas which are not only undamaged, but in which life more or less continues. This applies not only to the center of Damascus, it applies mostly to the city of Latakia, where there's a large Alawite community, and the same applies to Tartus. So you do find certain areas of Syria where the government is still firmly in control and where some semblance of life goes on. You can go out to lunch; you can shop; you can go to your office.

How freely can you travel around Syria as a western reporter?

I drove from Beirut to Damascus. During the day there are Syrian Army checkpoints, and the road is pretty clear. When you get into Damascus, you hear shellfire from the suburb of Daraya, which is less than a mile away from the main highway leading between Beirut and Damascus. When I came in, there was an aircraft literally dropping a bomb in the suburb of Daraya, which is held by rebels. At one point I flew to Latakia, on the coast, and from Latakia I drove north right up to the Syrian government army's front line. The Syrian government army allowed me to go into their frontline positions.

Syrian army soldier patrols epa03651347 A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on 05 April 2013, shows a Syrian army soldier taking position next to damaged buildings, during a patrol in the Daraya area in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, 05 April 2013. According to media, the Syrian army had controlled the Daraya area and continues the process of clearing the surrounding areas from presence of insurgents in the outskirts of Damascus. EPA/SANA HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The suburb of Daraya is still controlled by rebelsImage: picture alliance/dpa

What impression did you get from the Syrian government soldiers?

I found them a very ruthless, tough, but apparently pretty determined army. They clearly took no prisoners. They talked at one point about killing up to 700 terrorists, as they call the rebels. A general showed me a video on his phone of dead rebels with beards, and twice in the video a military boot appears and crushes the faces of the dead men.

Many of the soldiers I spoke to had been wounded. So they are tough, ruthless men on the government side, and we know the same apples to the rebels. And both sides, as we are well aware, have committed human rights abuses and war crimes. At the moment - but this does not necessarily mean it will last - the government forces in Syria are clearly taking territory from the rebels.

There are continual discussions about whether chemical weapons are being used in Syria.

We know that chemical weapons exist in Syria in the hands of the government, but there is no actual 100-percent proof that they have been used. The rebels say they have been used against civilians by Assad's forces, the Assad government says the rebels have used them. The United Nations has one report saying that rebels have used them, but there is no proof that Assad did. I put this to a senior military officer in Damascus, and he said, 'Why would we use chemical weapons? We've got MIG-29s that drop bombs and cause far more damage.'

A black pall of smoke rises skywards in the background following a large explosion in central Damascus, Syria 21 February 2013. Reports suggest that the explosion occured near the headquarters of the ruling Baath party and Russian Embassy. EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI
The government is still firmly in control of large parts of the countryImage: picture alliance / dpa

In Washington, there is talk about arming the rebels and imposing a no-fly zone. What do you make of such ideas?

This has been going for two and a half years. I think the Americans think that as long as they keep talking, no one will point out that they're not actually doing anything. The problem now for the West is that the rebels they want to support are the Free Syrian Army, allegedly all defectors from the Syrian government army. They do not want to support the Islamist rebels with links to al Qaeda. But once the weapons cross the border, I don't think you can be pick-and-choosy about where they go. So you've got this rather odd situation where we in the West are funneling money, support and weapons to rebels who include al Qaeda, whereas in Mali, we're trying to kill all the al Qaeda people. 

What role is Iran playing in this conflict?

The war is not about Syria, it's about Iran. And the intention of the West is to effectively destroy Iran's only Arab ally. And for the Iranians it's about keeping their only Arab ally. We know that the Iranian government has given advice, but these are very, very small token forces, compared to the propaganda, which is that thousands and thousands of Iranians are arriving en masse. I did not see any Iranian soldiers on any front line.

Media reports say that Russia intends to supply weapons to the Syrian government.

Ever since the Israeli raid on military installations north of Damascus two weeks ago the Syrians have been very concerned that they may find themselves under attack again by the Israelis. They want to be able to prevent this, and I think the Russians are quite keen to give them the weapons to do that.

An Israeli F-15 I fighter jet launches anti-missile flares during an air show at the graduation ceremony of Israeli pilots at the Hatzerim air force base in the Negev desert, near the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, on December 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
The Syrians want to prevent more Israeli air raidsImage: Getty Images

Is there a danger that the conflict could spread to Israel?

Israelis America's greatest ally in the Middle East. If it bombs government forces, it's supporting the rebels. So in a sense, we in the West are now involved militarily, by allowing the Israelis as proxies to bomb Syria. But at the moment, I can see every reason why the Israelis would want to stay out of Syria, because the Syrian army in the last two years has broken free of the corruption, and it's become quite experienced in fighting. So if the Israelis did want to get involved on the ground in Syria, they'd find themselves fighting some very determined forces.

Would it be helpful for the international community to intervene in Syria?

Militarily, no. Politically, of course. I think the last talks between Kerry and Putin, where they actually went to talk at a joint conference, is the best thing we've heard so far politically. It's interesting that the Americans and especially the French don't want Assad regime people in a transition government. But they also don't want a very large rebel faction, the Islamist Nusra group, to be involved either, so already we're saying, "Let's have a big conference, but here are the people who cannot attend." I think the war is not over; I think it could go on for another two or three years.

Robert Fisk (66) is an author and Middle East correspondent for British newspaper "The Independent." For more than 30 years, he has reported from the world's crisis regions, including Northern Ireland, Portugal during the Carnation Revolution and Afghanistan. Since 1976, he has been reporting on the Middle East from his home in Beirut. Fisk speaks Arabic and is one of the few western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden. He has won several journalism prizes for his work.