Inside Syria, the changing tactics in a brutal civil war

The West has become consumed with the idea that Syria's regime may have used chemical weapons. But inside the country it is the everyday brutality and changing tactics by both sides in this conflict that is affecting people's lives, Nelofer Pazira reports from Damascus.

Snipers, suicide bombers, widespread destruction an everyday occurrence

A bombed-out street in Homs, the scene of fierce fighting between government and rebel forces, and typical of several of Syria's larger cities. Photo taken April 28. (Reuters)

Fifty-four-year-old Emtthal Ibrahim was shot dead at two o'clock on a Monday afternoon. A single bullet hit her as she sat inside her chauffeur-driven car near Harasta, just east of Damascus. It was probably a sniper lying in wait.

A member of the minority Alawite sect from the northern port city of Latakia, she was a colonel in charge of engineering in the Syrian government army and the mother of Syrian TV presenter Ala'a Ibrahim.

Just days before, he had shown me a noticeboard from his hometown on his phone screen — a board littered with black-and-white pictures and reports of the kidnapped and dead members of his community, all targeted because they were supporters of the current regime.

The village includes Sunni Muslims, Christians and Alawites — the latter, the same Muslim sect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs to.

A war that's already cost up to 70,000 lives, by some counts — the number climbs by a least a hundred every day — is now taking on a different shape.

The claim by Israel and America that chemical weapons may have been used by the Assad regime briefly worried the West and the UN. Would they at last intervene? Even as Washington admitted it has no real proof.

Within Syria itself, though, it is the everyday brutality — such as the car bombs and mortar attacks that rocked central Damascus on two consecutive days this week — that is becoming more apparent.

With more assassinations, suicide car bombs and kidnappings by rebel forces, the vicious and savage aspect of this conflict can't be ignored; just as the rubble and bomb debris in the suburbs of Damascus and other large centres, smashed by the Assad regime's guns, can no longer remain hidden from the public.

Change in tactics

Government soldiers search cars for bombs on roads leading into central Damascus. But that did not stop two high-profile bomb attacks this week in the government centre, including one that nearly killed Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader Al-Halqi. (Nelofer Pazira / CBC)

Last year, Syria's military could not counter the guerrilla tactics of the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government.

"We come in here with our tanks and they put a single sniper on the roof," an officer told me in Aleppo then. "It takes us a long time to chase after the sniper — and by then he's moved to another building."

The pattern was clear: a few armed opposition members could enter a neighbourhood and use civilians as cover for their operations.

Then the army would arrive with its armoured vehicles and T-72 tanks and try to recapture the district. But in the process, the army was exhausting its men and resources to kill or capture just a few of its enemies — and was leaving piles of destruction and death behind.

Then the battle-game changed, and the war, for a time, was turned into a series of undeclared ceasefires.

In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Harasta, for example, Assad's army let the opposition keep control of the centre while blocking any expansion with checkpoints that encircled the area.

Last fall, my Syrian driver wanted to show me his home in Harasta. We were waved through by government soldiers at the perimeter checkpoint.

All seemed normal. But once inside, we found opposition flags painted on the walls as well as insults against the president and his family, and slogans praising the Free Syria Army, and the words: "Long Live the Free City of Harasta."

It was a glimpse of another Syria — where life went on far from the scrutiny of government security agents.

The message of horror

This military arrangement didn't last. In January, rebel forces inside Harasta staged an attack on every government checkpoint around the suburb, killing all 45 soldiers on duty.

So the Syrian military forces had to come up with different tactics to fight this war.

Now they have reduced their troop formations to 60-strong units of special forces, better trained and equipped — and urged them to use the same guerilla-style tactics of their enemies.

"The government cannot afford to lose more trained men or resources," said Ala'a Ibrahim, the Syrian journalist whose mother was killed at Harasta. "New recruits take months to train."

These new units — transported to their operations by helicopter, often at night — are credited with lifting the rebel siege of the civilian airport in Aleppo, although the highway between the airport and the city still changes hands almost daily.

The soldiers carry advanced weapons. But so do the Islamist fighters opposed to them.

In the past, soldiers of the opposition Free Syria Army would announce "tactical retreats." But the jihadi combatants who often take their place — and who include Arabs from outside Syria — fight to the death.

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare their weapons in the Sidi Meqdad area in the suburbs of Damascus last month. (Reuters)

The signs of al-Qaeda are ever more obvious: suicide bombers, the frightful treatment of captured government and military personnel — including mass beheadings — assassination and kidnapping.

These are messages of horror.

This hideous, dreadful war is now bruising its way into the mind and psyche of a nation that once took pride in its openness, and flaunted its lack of sectarianism in a tribal Arab world.

"They are talking about creating a security belt around Damascus," an optimistic businessman told me last week. "Forty kilometres all around the capital to be kept clear of the rebels, so we'll have no more mortar attacks."

Wishful thinking, especially after the attacks of this week.

Like the Soviets in Afghanistan 30 years ago, government troops here are using the old "tree tactics" of foreign occupation armies — trying to hold cities and main highways, and leaving the countryside to the rebels.

How long this will last is anyone's guess. But the same businessman friend says he's now resigned to an endless war.

Syria will never be the same again. Yet neither side is winning or losing. "It's the uncertainty of what's going to happen," he sighs. "That is what is most difficult to bear."