'No power can bring down Syrian regime'
After gaining exclusive access to Bashar al-Assad's army officers, Robert Fisk reports from the Aleppo front line
You know it's 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 on its way to one of the oldest cities in the world.
But a halo of brown smoke embraces the horizon and the driver knows better than to follow the motorway signs from the airport. He turns left, gingerly 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. The engine cuts out in the way my dad's car used to in France on bad post-war petrol, the accelerator cutting out nervously as we drive past two rubbish trucks upended to form a makeshift road-block.
But these are phantom check points. There are no gunmen, no militiamen, no al-Qa'ida, no "terrorists", no "gangs", no "foreign fighters" – how one grows sick of these eternal semantics – 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 army has come and gone, and the buildings are shell-smashed and bullet-scarred. We turn left onto a laneway of pulverised grey rubble, burning black garbage bags smoking on either side of us. Who set them on fire?
We drive on through these ghost streets. On our right is a spectral police station, its giant portrait of Syrian 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 over an acre of dust. Only when the damaged Citadel of Aleppo appears to our right – dun-coloured ramparts remind us that history did not begin yesterday – are there families, small girls in their Eid dresses and a "shawarma" café.
"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, Idlib, Hama and Deraa. President Assad 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.
The senior Syrian officers wear their camouflage fatigues without badges. "In wartime," a Maj-Gen tells me, "we take off our badges of rank for our own safety in order not to be recognised." There are, it seems, no Horatio Nelsons in the Syrian army, bedecked in medals for the snipers in the rigging. In Aleppo, 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 here 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 the officer's reply: "The Syrian regime will stay for ever. 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 to Syria's 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 of the past 18 months, one still nursing a sling after receiving grenade shrapnel in his shoulder.
There were television sets in the officers' temporary quarters. I saw the anti-regime "Al Arabiya" and BBC World on the 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. Comment is sacred and I suspect facts are free. 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, Private Mohammed Ibrahim Dout, was "martyred" by a sniper. His comrade says: "We are sorry for our brother soldier, but he is now in paradise." A General tells me of a friend, a Lieutenant in the full-time Syrian army in the Damascus suburb of Douma: "He was married three months ago and was walking to his home in Douma when some men in a van greeted him and offered him a lift." Lieutenant Assem Abbas, 23, accepted the gesture in good faith.
"We found him later," the General says, "cut into two pieces and thrown into a sewage tank."