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The Syrian army was in a triumphant mood. It claimed that it had beaten back a rebel assault in the al-Qadam district of south Damascus aimed at cutting the main road to Jordan. An army commander, who gave his name as Abu Yusuf, said: “The attack started at 10 in the morning last Sunday and was intended to coincide with the Geneva conference.” He said the rebels had lost 120 dead and had burned the bodies of 40 other fighters to conceal the fact they were foreign jihadis.
All this was impossible to check yesterday morning, as I was standing in a command post defended by two tanks on the other side of the road from al-Qadam. The only point that could be verified was that traffic was flowing freely in both directions and that drivers and passengers did not look apprehensive. The reason I had been brought there appeared to be that the Syrian army was annoyed by reports on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya satellite television channels that the main highway south had been cut.
It is intermittent skirmishing like this, with large and inflated losses claimed as having been inflicted on the other side, that is the day-to-day reality of the Syrian war. Houses and shops in al-Qadam facing the road had chunks of cement gauged out of them by explosions and were clearly abandoned. The rusty television satellite dishes on what was left of their roofs seem to show that their inhabitants had fled months ago.
The fact that the army was so pleased over such a small victory underlines the fact that there is a military stalemate in Syria. Government forces are making some gains, particularly in Damascus and Homs, but they are not winning decisively. Their main tactic is to seal off rebel districts with checkpoints and then bombard the area so most of the civilian population flees and those that remain are isolated. The front lines change very slowly.
Damascus is getting used to this kind of war. People no longer automatically flinch in government-held sectors when they hear the distant explosion of a mortar shell. In the early evening, people crowd the bustling streets – in contrast to a year ago when most went home early.
There are sudden flare-ups as in al-Qadam last week, but the fighting is further from the centre than it was six months ago. Both sides in Syria are able to make gains only where they were already strong. Despite the opposition fighting its own intra-rebel civil war, the Syrian army has not done much to take advantage – though possibly its commanders see no reason to launch an offensive when their enemies are busily killing each other.
A further reason for the greater sense of normality in government-controlled Damascus is that, after three years of war, Syrians are accustomed to living with a high level of violence. The shock effect of hearing explosions and gunfire is less than it was. Damascenes are becoming like Beirutis who, during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, became expert in assessing the degrees of danger and knowing the most effective way to stay safe.
The Syrian capital is a complex patchwork of jurisdictions. There are large areas under government control and smaller ones held by the rebels. The latter areas are often largely depopulated, as their inhabitants flee unrelenting artillery fire while others have been systematically bulldozed. There are some changes in where you can drive and where you cannot.
The last time I drove north out of Damascus to Homs, six months ago, our journey had to begin with an inconvenient hour-long detour into the mountains to avoid snipers in the northern districts of Qaboun, Harasta and Jobar. But I drove along the main road last week, and these districts had been completely laid waste and whole neighbourhoods were reduced to mounds of broken concrete.
The political geography of Damascus is now getting even more complicated. In a few of the more isolated rebel enclaves, “reconciliation” agreements have been signed or are under discussion. I drove to a former rebel bastion called Barzeh – though part of the district was never under rebel control – that had just reached such an agreement. Some 200 members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had surrendered and been pardoned, but the remainder kept their weapons and a degree of local control since the army did not enter Barzeh.
Getting inside the district was complicated. In theory, we had permission to enter, but for an hour no checkpoint would take the responsibility for letting us through. Finally, we drove down a ravine to a checkpoint consisting, uniquely for Syria, of Syrian Army soldiers and their rebel counterparts in the FSA. They seemed to be mixing amicably, and one of the FSA took me inside Barzeh to talk to rebel commanders who showed me around their devastated district. Returning refugees must have been prepared for the worst but, even so, they looked appalled by the extent of the damage.
Could the Barzeh agreement be emulated elsewhere in Syria? The government would like to think so, but it is unlikely that the larger rebel enclaves will give up or agree to ceasefires, particularly if the government has not succeeded in tightly besieging them. Meanwhile, there is a joke among Syrians that they are quite used to keeping two sets of papers assuring them of safe passage at government or rebel checkpoints. But what papers should they show if they are stopped at a mixed Syrian Army/FSA checkpoint?
The government is not making gains everywhere. I went to Adra, an industrial city just north of Damascus, part of which was taken in a surprise assault led by an al-Qa’ida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, in December. The rebels had crawled through a sewer to outflank government forces. They are then reputed to have gone from house to house with lists of names, taking away and killing government employees and members of minorities such as the Alawi, Christians, Shia and Druze.
Enough of the worst atrocity stories in Syria turn out to be true for all to have some credibility. In the case of Adra, bakery workers were reported to have been stuffed into their own ovens and roasted to death. Doctors and nurses in the local clinic were slaughtered. True or false, these gruesome tales provide the justification for real atrocities.
A couple of days later, I was interviewing wounded soldiers in Mezze military hospital in Damascus. On leaving I gave a lift to an injured man with a crutch standing by the entry gate to the hospital. He came from Adra and seemed to be a low-level intelligence officer who had been shot in the leg several months earlier – a wound he explained that was not getting better. He spoke of how the mother of a friend of his had been raped by the rebels in Adra and she was now in a mental hospital while others had been decapitated.
The intelligence officer was obviously not going to take any prisoners in future. This illustrates a further difficulty in arranging any compromise in Syria. Both sides have a hard core who have suffered so much that they do not want to make the smallest concession to their enemies.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.