Robert Fisk: Syria's army remains defiant as it buries dead soldiers
Sergeant Jassem Abdul-Raheem Shehadi and Private Ahmed Khalaf Adalli of the Syrian Army were sent to their graves yesterday with the send-off their families would have wished for; coffins draped with the Syrian flag, trumpets and drums and wreaths held by their comrades, and the presence of their commanding officer.
There was a Last Post, Chopin's funeral march – mixed with ululating staff at the Tishreen Hospital to which their remains had been transferred – and then the nine-hour journey by ambulance to their hometown, Raka. Shehadi was 19, Adalli was 20. And their uncles swore they had died for President Bashar al-Assad.
They were shot dead in Deraa – by snipers, according to their commanding officer, Major Walid Hatim. "By terrorists," he said several times. Assad's opponents might have no sympathy with these dead soldiers – nor Amnesty, nor Human Rights Watch, nor the United Nations, who say 3,000 civilians have been killed by Syrian security forces, nor the Americans, nor the British et al – but those two coffins suggested that there is more than one story to the Syrian Revolution.
Syrian officers told me yesterday that 1,150 soldiers have been killed in Syria in the past seven months, an extraordinary death toll for regular Syrian troops if correct. On Zawi mountain near Idlib, Major Hatim said, 30 Syrian soldiers had been killed in an ambush. Mazjera was the word he used. A massacre.
Shehadi and Adalli were based in Deraa, where the opposition to Assad began. Shehadi was there for six months, Adalli for four. It was a sign of the times that Major Hatim arrived at the Damascus funeral in civilian clothes. Why was he not wearing his uniform, I asked? "It is easier," he replied. Because of the dangers driving from Deraa? "Maybe," he replied. That, too, told its own story. Both the dead soldiers had lost their fathers years ago and their two uncles had travelled here from Raka to escort the bodies home. They were from poor families, they said. The boys and their uncles had been looking after their mothers.
Shehadi's uncle, Salim Abdullah, in a brown abaya and drawing heavily on a cigarette, was on the edge of tears. "My nephew had three brothers and two sisters, and they are very poor," he said. "His mother Arash will now have to be looked after by us. Those killers have killed the hope of our family. He was the youngest boy."
Behind Salim Shehadi, Syrian troops stood in full battledress as the coffins were brought from the hospital mortuary. All Syria's military dead leave from the gloomy portals of the Tishreen Hospital, a vast concrete building in the suburbs of Damascus. Even the ambulance driver prostrated himself in tears over his vehicle.
Syrian television had a crew at the hospital, along with the ever loyal Syrian Arab News Agency, but it was highly unusual for a foreign reporter to be invited to this ceremony, let alone to speak to Syrian officers. Major Hatim explained to me that the two soldiers were killed in a planned ambush; the sniper was firing from between two houses. There was a strange confluence in this description. Opponents of Assad often claim that it is they that are fired on by snipers using the cover of buildings.
But few people in Syria now doubt that, however peaceful – and yet bloody – the anti-government demonstrations in Homs and Hama are, the Syrian Army has become a major target. Needless to say, Major Hatim, a 25-year army veteran, was also a supporter of the President.
Hatim talked of Syria's "resistance" on the part of the Palestinians, that soldiers sometimes had to die for their country, that their enemy is Israel. There is much talk in Damascus of a "foreign hand" behind the killings in Syria, although the Major admitted that, in this case, "unfortunately the killers are Syrian".
But Salim Shehadi wanted to say more. "I hope you will be honest and tell the truth," he said. "Tell the truth about the killing of Syrian people. The hand of terrorists took my nephew. We are all ready to be martyred for Syria and for our President Assad." It sounded too pat, this little speech from a grieving man, and a reporter must ask if this was a set-up. Yet the military had only four minutes before I arrived for the funeral, and I doubt if they could have coaxed this poor man to say these words.
Perhaps, up in distant Raka, they believe these words of loyalty – Abdullah Hilmi, Adalli's uncle, an older man in a brown robe, said much the same – and certainly Major Hatim believed what he said. But what of those YouTube pictures, of the shooting of demonstrators and mourners at funerals – no danger of that at this funeral yesterday – and the 3,000 civilian dead of which the UN now talks?
I suppose that, until we Western journalists can investigate without government restrictions, it's a YouTube picture against the word of two poor men in peasants' clothes.