Aleppo battle is over -- but snipers still seek targets
You know it is all true when the taxi driver turns off the motorway towards Aleppo. In front lies a mile of empty road, disappearing into the heat haze.
But a halo of brown smoke embraces the horizon and the driver knows better than to follow the motorway signs. He turns left, bouncing over the broken median rail, then between two huge piles of rocks like a frightened cat. In front of us is a sea of burnt houses and wrecked cars, through which we drive slowly. We drive past two rubbish trucks upended to form a makeshift roadblock.
But these are phantom checkpoints. There are no gunmen, no militiamen, no al-Qa'ida, no terrorists, no gangs, no foreign fighters and not a civilian soul, because this battle is over -- for now.
This is the suburb of Al Baz, won by the government army, we are told later, although we see neither soldiers nor policemen for miles. The buildings are shell-smashed and bullet-scarred. We turn left on to a laneway of pulverised grey rubble, burning black garbage bags smoking on either side of us. Who set them on fire?
We drive on. On our right is a spectral police station, its giant portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on its wall is intact. But above each window are the black stains of fires. The building is gutted, the fire station next door is abandoned and a fire truck has been driven into a wall. In four miles, I spot just one forlorn child in the ruins and a mother carrying a baby. Only when the damaged Citadel of Aleppo appears to our right are there families, small girls in their Eid dresses and a shwarma cafe.
''We cleaned these streets,'' a Syrian officer will tell me later. Well yes, insofar as you can beat street fighters with T-72 tanks and BMP troop carriers. The Syrian soldiers described to us how they have been fighting in Homs, Idib, Hama and Deraa. Bashar has sent his battle-hardened men to fight for Aleppo but this is not, I am told, Maher al-Assad's infamous Fourth Division: Absolutely not, a general tells me with a laugh -- though I have no idea where Bashar's brother and his men are operating.
Now for the official figures: Government army statistics of course, for we are on the other side of the Aleppo front line. Total terrorists dead: 700, and many wounded. Total military deaths: 20. Wounded: 100. Internet and mobile lines were cut by rebels near Homs, so a land circuit to Damascus offers the only phone communication with the capital. In Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents would pay to keep the mobile system operating as they needed the phones. But here, it seems they have enough command and control systems -- courtesy of Washington and London if we are to believe our masters -- to ignore Syria's domestic lines.
The Free Syrian Army can't surround Aleppo -- but they can isolate it. A miserable Eid holiday, with richer residents camping in hotels to avoid gunfire in the suburbs, no newspapers, and the local news agency so bereft of lines, it has 11 days of pictures waiting for transmission to Damascus.
Senior Syrian officers wear their camouflage fatigues without badges. In wartime, a major general tells me, ''we take off our badges of rank for our own safety in order not to be recognised.''
The snipers are at apartment windows. Three times yesterday, they opened fire on soldiers and then vanished. Troops in steel helmets wandered through the public gardens near the disused railway tracks in a vain search for them.
I asked one of the Syrian military elite if he had any reaction to US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who announced two weeks ago that Aleppo would be a nail in Assad's coffin and that of the regime. This was his reply: ''The Syrian regime will stay forever. No power on earth can bring it down. All regimes will fall -- but Syria will stay, because God is on the side of those who are in the right.''
Certainly -- albeit infinitely smaller than the cost in Syrian civilian victims of this awful war -- the army is paying its own price. Of the four generals I have so far met in Aleppo, three have been seriously wounded in the fighting.
There were television sets in the officers' temporary quarters. I saw the anti-regime Al Arabiya and BBC World on screen as well as Syrian television's own drudge-like coverage of the war. And soldiers, the army is quick to reveal, receive a daily lecture from their officers on the state of the conflict.
Any conversation has to begin with the government line: the army defends the homeland against aggression, an international conspiracy targets Syria because it is the only Arab nation to resist Israel. Foreign enemies at first supported demonstrations against the government and then gave the demonstrators weapons.
There is no admission of troops using guns against unarmed demonstrators and no explanation of how armed Syrian demonstrators turned into foreign fighters.
But access to the Syrian army can sometimes produce a factoid more powerful than statistics. Ahmed, a 21-year-old conscript, tells me how his brother was martyred by a sniper. A general tells me of a friend, a lieutenant: he was married three months ago and was walking to his home in Douma in Damascus when some men in a van offered him a lift. Lieutenant Assem Abbas accepted the gesture in good faith. We found him later, the general says, cut into two pieces and thrown into a sewage tank. (©Independent News Service)