FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Shelter From the Storm: the Tunnels of Eastern Ghouta

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús | CC BY 2.0

All battles and bombardments share their secrets one by one. Eastern Ghouta is no different. Why the sudden, savage bombardment of these Syrian towns and villages more than three weeks ago? Why the wasteland of homes and streets—and how did so many of the civilians survive along with hundreds of Islamist gunmen?

You can do no better than start your enquiry in a front line dug-out near Arbeen, on the old and now war-smashed international highway between Damascus and Aleppo. It is protected by oil barrels of solid concrete, an iron roof, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a couple of rifles and a rusting motor-bike, presumably to carry messages when the lines are cut. “Twenty mortars a day,” one of the Syrian soldiers says, rolling his eyes.

And now it is over; he hopes. But – aside from the oil lamps and the cups of ‘mutta’ tea (an outrageous non-alcoholic brew originating from Argentine plants which the Syrian army drinks by the pint) – what catches your attention is the absence of a single trench.

The soldiers sport beards like their French ‘poilu’ ancestors in the Great War a hundred years ago. But they dig no trenches. Not a single communications alleyway winds through the dirt and mud on either side of the dug-out to give the running messenger cover from those mortars. Maybe the motorbike increased their chances. But no one has ever provided me with a serious explanation of why the lattice of front-line trenches and rear trenches and revetments dug so deeply a century ago – deeper by the Brits than by the French, deeper still by the Germans – has never caught on in Syria.

Thus many of these Syrian soldiers were shocked to find how safe their enemies were. Here is the account of an eyewitness who entered the ruins after the first Syrian assault units burst through the front lines towards Douma. “I have never seen so many tunnels. They had built tunnels everywhere. They were deep and they ran beneath shops and mosques and hospitals and homes and apartment blocks and roads and fields. I went into one with full electric lighting, the lamps strung out for hundreds of yards. I walked half a mile through it. They were safe there. So were the civilians who hid in the same tunnels.”

These great stoneworks – for they were carved through the living rock, supposedly by Palestinians on loan from Hamas, men who had spent their years hacking tunnels between Gaza and the Egyptian desert to the south – have become a familiar part of the Syrian war. I have walked through them in Homs, where the makers carved their names on the walls like Victorian railway builders, and in eastern Aleppo. These tunnels somehow carry inside them the necrology of ideas, the ideological martyrs’ cemetery of their makers’minds. They are deep and dank and glisten with moisture. But they are safe.

So here comes the latest little secret of the Ghouta war. The Syrian aircraft so often blamed for the indiscriminate nature of a bombing campaign which, according to many reports, has killed 1,500 civilians in eastern Ghouta, were old. But the Russian aircraft were also old Sukhoi 24s, some of them upgraded but others inferior to the Sukhois currently sold by Moscow to the government of Belarus. And this from a Russian source – outside Syria, but all too familiar with Russian military operations inside the country – who knows about the trajectory of rockets: “The bombs we used in Ghouta were not “smart” bombs with full computer guidance. Maybe some. But most had a variable of 50 metres off target.” In other words, you can forget the old claim of “pin-point” accuracy which western armies also like to adopt. These Russian bombs launched against eastern Ghouta had a spread pattern of 150 feet each side of what the pilots were aiming at; which means a house instead of an anti-aircraft gun. Or one house rather than another house. And anyone inside.

But these blockbusters, it seems, couldn’t bust any blocks. The tunnels were never breached. That’s why they were built. They were bomb-proof. And thus the Russians and Syrians fired more and more bombs to break them. The Islamist groups in Ghouta did not have barracks or dug-outs – not in the traditional sense, at least – for they lived in the tunnels, ate in the tunnels, fought, just briefly, in the daylight outside the tunnels, and then dragged their mortars back inside. A fighter wishes to pray: he can take the tunnel to the mosque. He needs surgery? He can be taken between those glistening walls to the hospital. He needs to move to a new battlefront; he takes a mile or two walk across town. Underground.

When the Syrian forces of the ‘Nimr’ units – those soldiers commanded by Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, ‘The Tiger’ – advanced, they came across civilians with their hands up. A man who watched the helmet camera videotapes of these soldiers spoke to me of what he saw. “One man came out and they shouted at him to stop – and to raise his shirt to show he didn’t have a suicide bomb. But he didn’t stop. He kept on walking. They shouted again and started firing at the ground and the walls around him. Then he stopped and understood and raised his shirt. A woman came out of one house with her hands up, but the soldiers were then ambushed by armed men and shouted at her to return to her basement.”

The Syrians paid for their advance. In one short battle, at least 20 of them were killed. During another, five men emerged from the ruins, all dressed in Syrian army uniform and carrying weapons, well shaved, saying they were “coming across” to the Syrian lines. Several Syrian soldiers captured years ago were still held hostage by Islamists in underground cells. But the ‘Nimr’ units, while they knew the uniforms were real, looked closely at the faces of the men wearing them. “They could see they were newly shaved, that they weren’t so tanned on their chins as on the rest of their faces, and they realised they were Jaish al-Islam men dressed in Syrian uniform who had just removed their beards,” the eyewitness added bleakly. “They killed them all.”

So why the ferocity of the bombardment? That Russian source – no politician but certainly, I suspect, a Putin supporter – believes to this day that the Russian president wanted to end the Syrian war, especially the Ghouta conflict, before his election. But this proved impossible. Syria doesn’t fit the familiar ‘quagmire’ of Vietnam legend; it is a vast terrain of captured and recaptured and re-recaptured towns and villages, which moves with the power of the antagonists. The Russians can pick and choose their battles. This increases mobility. But it doesn’t create the exit home.

There are streets in Ghouta, incredibly enough, whose buildings are still standing relatively unscathed. They were spared during the bombardment because their inhabitants said – by mobile phone — they wanted to stay in their homes and would not resist the Syrian army. Thousands of Syrians in Ghouta have thus not joined the refugee buses nor – even if they were related to the Islamists – accompanied the women and children travelling with their jihadi menfolk to Idlib. They are still living at home.

You might not think this, staring over the miles of wreckage, grey, powdered, roof upon pancaked roof. But then you wouldn’t imagine the tunnels either. The Syrians were amazed at them. So were the Moscow military men guarding the ‘Russian Centre for Reconciliation’ inside Ghouta. That’s where the convoys are put together on paper and lists and buses numbered for evacuation, where the Islamist groups bargain for freedom with or without weapons, for ‘reconciliation’ or for a temporary Russian presence in their streets – even for local authorities run by Islamist political groups instead of by armed men. The Syrians have spotted the trick in this one, of course. Try to take back the land from the ‘local authorities’ and the Islamists will spring mushroom-like from the ground again, along with their weapons. And perhaps from undiscovered tunnels.

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

July 15, 2020
Omar Ramahi
Hagia Sophia and the Catastrophe of Symbolism
Binoy Kampmark
The Yeezy Effect: Kanye West Joins the Presidential Race
Robin Wonsley – Ty Moore
Minneapolis Ballot Measure to Dismantle the Police Will Test the Strength of Our Movement
Robert Jensen
‘Cancel Culture’ Cannot Erase a Strong Argument
Tom Clifford
Jack Charlton, Soccer and Ireland’s Working Class
July 14, 2020
Anthony DiMaggio
Canceling the Cancel Culture: Enriching Discourse or Dumbing it Down?
Patrick Cockburn
Boris Johnson Should not be Making New Global Enemies When His Country is in a Shambles
Frank Joyce
Lift From the Bottom? Yes.
Richard C. Gross
The Crackdown on Foreign Students
Steven Salaita
Should We Cancel “Cancel Culture”?
Paul Street
Sorry, the Chicago Blackhawks Need to Change Their Name and Logo
Jonathan Cook
‘Cancel Culture’ Letter is About Stifling Free Speech, Not Protecting It
John Feffer
The Global Rushmore of Autocrats
C. Douglas Lummis
Pillar of Sand in Okinawa
B. Nimri Aziz
Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields by BNimri Aziz July 11/2020
Cesar Chelala
What was lost when Ringling Bros. Left the Circus
Dan Bacher
California Regulators Approve 12 New Permits for Chevron to Frack in Kern County
George Wuerthner
Shrinking Wilderness in the Gallatin Range
Lawrence Davidson
Woodrow Wilson’s Racism: the Basis For His Support of Zionism
Binoy Kampmark
Mosques, Museums and Politics: the Fate of Hagia Sophia
Dean Baker
Propaganda on Government Action and Inequality from David Leonhardt
July 13, 2020
Gerald Sussman
The Russiagate Spectacle: Season 2?
Ishmael Reed
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Perry Mason Moment
Jack Rasmus
Why the 3rd Quarter US Economic ‘Rebound’ Will Falter
W. T. Whitney
Oil Comes First in Peru, Not Coronavirus Danger, Not Indigenous Rights
Ralph Nader
The Enduring Case for Demanding Trump’s Resignation
Raghav Kaushik – Arun Gupta
On Coronavirus and the Anti-Police-Brutality Uprising
Deborah James
Digital Trade Rules: a Disastrous New Constitution for the Global Economy Written by and for Big Tech
Howard Lisnoff
Remembering the Nuclear Freeze Movement and Its Futility
Sam Pizzigati
Will the Biden-Sanders Economic Task Force Rattle the Rich?
Allen Baker
Trump’s Stance on Foreign College Students Digs US Economic Hole Even Deeper
Binoy Kampmark
The Coronavirus Seal: Victoria’s Borders Close
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Power, Knowledge and Virtue
Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail