Syria Dispatches: An End in Sight?

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: “In mid 2017, I travelled to the Syrian Arab Republic. The war was in it’s sixth year but it was beginning to feel like the war could be in sight. Aleppo had just been liberated. And Daesh were beginning their long retreat across the desert. In this film, we travel to the ruins of Homs and Aleppo to find life slowly returning. But will Syrians ever be able to forgive.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Norma Jabbour, Syrian Woman: “What happened to us is not easy. Just look around. If this happened to you, would you forgive?”

Narration: We witness coalition jets pounding their targets, outside Palmyra

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Major General Khadour: “Yes. Fire again! Fire again!”

Narration: And we hit the frontlines of East Damascus to find the Syria Army on the cusp of victory. The first thing you notice about Damascus is that most of it could pass as a city at peace. For the last six years most of what we have seen of this country on our TV screens, have been bombs dropping, burnt out buildings and men, women and children fleeing in terror. But much of Syria remains untouched. And civilized.

Although, it wasn’t long before we were in Jober. Only a few kilometers from the centre of the city where war was raging.

Six years of it. Every inch fought over time and again. And it showed. On this bus, graffiti, reading ‘danger of death beyond this point.Perhaps a joke or simply a warning.

Only a few weeks previously, the militants had launched a shock offensive. It had failed. And now the Syrian Army were on the move.

Taking us to the front was Captain Khaled. A month later, during the editing of this film he would be killed in fighting not far from where we are now.

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: This area used to be under militant control. As you can see its now under the armies control. The frontline is not far ahead. And that’s where we’re going now.”

Narration: From behind us artillery sporadically pounds the militant lines.Captain Khaled tells me the biggest problem are enemy snipers and anti tank weapons. The militants also leave traps behind. Lacing buildings with explosives. A few weeks after we left a tunnel was blown not far from here by militants, killing 45 Syrian soldiers.

All around relics of the past. A reminder of years ago and perhaps the peace which must eventually come.

We’re now close to the front. Only a hundred meters from militant lines. Where snipers lie in wait.

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: He says that this is one of the most important positions in the area. It’s a heave fire position which is able to support the other lines in this sector.”

Narration: From here, the Syrian army can look down upon enemy.But in such an exposed position there are obvious dangers. The soldiers are keen to show off their ingenuity. A heavy machine gun linked to a remote control. If this position is hit, the operator will be in another room. From over head the roar of a rocket. Targeting militants but it could have hit anybody.

Over the last six years, ingenious ways of killing have been developed by both sides. Tunnels and counter tunnels. This war is being fought underground. As well as from above.

The danger of snipers and mortor attacks are very real. But it is clear that after six years of war only the Syrian army can win from here. But it is clear only the Syrian army can win from here.

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: You can hear the rocket fire. Every few minutes a rocket comes over our heads and lands on the militant positions.”

Narration: There have been times in this war, that the governmenthave been on the brink. It’s easy to forget that the President’s palace is only a few miles from here. This is Captain Fidaa. He’s in charge of this part of the line. He shows me a dead militant on his phone.

CONVERSATION [English] Host & Syrian Armies: “-He is wearing an explosive belt. The triggers are on his left and right. He was choked to death. Because one of our heros got his neck. So we killed him before he could detonate.

-You shot him in the neck?

-No, he strangled him after jumping from the tank.”

Narration: He tells me that the militants are tough. They don’t care about dying. They’re fanatics, he says. I asked him whether he was surprised about the high tech weapons that the militants were able to get their hands on.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Captain Fidaa: “No, no. We know that they receive a lot of funding from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So it’s natural that they have this high-tech equipment. It’s also because the border between us and Jordan are open. So whatever they want is coming through there.”

Narration: In Captain Fidaa’s quarters, a small shell marked apartment on the most dangerous part of the line, we drink tea.On the ceiling, the damage done by a mortor shell. Captain Fidaa tells me he was only out of his quarters a few minutes before it hit. On the TV, Mosul in Northern Iraq. A coalition of the Iraqi and American military are laying siege. All across the region, Daesh is in retreat.

INTERVIEW [Arabic] Captain Fidaa: “-Can you see it on TV? You see?

Look at Mosul. It’s shocking!”

Narration: After drinking tea, we made our way back through the wreckage of East Damascus. And in twenty minutes we were back in downtown. Where, apart from the odd roar of a fighter jet and the dozens of military checkpoints, the war seemed far away.

From Damascus we headed north. Our final destination was the ruins of Aleppo. But first stop, jutting out into the Syrian desert the ancient city of Palmyra. As we got close the road became littered with the debris of war.

And as we entered, the devastation became clear. This town has changed hands four times in the last six years. While, up on the hill, the citadel, like it has done for almost a thousand years looks down on the ancient ruins below.

Only three weeks earlier, Daesh barbarians had held this town. In the Roman amphitheatre they had filmed their child recruits executing Syrian soldiers. They then broadcast it around the world.

Now, there’s a billboard in the centre of town, the leaders of Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah - the international coalition that drove them out.

It wasn’t long before we were heading to the front which was now a few miles out of town. We passed dug in bases and artillery positions. Off road and out into the desert.

General Fouad Khadour was there to meet us. He tells us that this is the frontline. And points out the enemy positions.

Small arms fire. And we had to duck back behind the dirt wall. But it was only the barbarians who were dying today. Air superiority is all out in the desert. Above, war planes, Syrian, the General said, although, they could have been Russian. And a few seconds later, the bombs land.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] General Fouad Khadour: “The black smoke means a direct hit. Hopefully we got them.

Yes. Fire again! Fire again! We have a hit. Well done! Good.

Look here! Another hit! Yes, God Bless. Well done! Yes, right on top of the hill!”

Narration: We watched for some time as plane after plane came over. Some direct hits. Others missing. Tonight they would advance under cover of darkness, towards the town of Arak. They planned to take that in a few days. And then onwards.Bomb and advance.Bomb and advance.Past a couple more towns and to Deirez- Zur.The town that has miraculously held out surrounded by Daesh for six years. They’d finally take the town five months later. And an end of the war is now in sight.

During my time in Syria, a terrorist inspired by Daesh bombed Manchester, England. A young man of Libyan heritage walked into a concert venue in the city centre and killed 23 people.

A week later a van was driven into pedestrians on London Bridge. Three men with fake explosive jackets jumped out and began stabbing whoever they could find. 8 were killed. They were also inspired by Daesh. The same terrorists that the Syrian army were fighting out here in the desert.

The General told me that he and his men were fighting for civilization. And that they were dying on behalf of the West as well. And as the General spoke to his men, I couldn’t help feeling. That they deserve some respect for that. A ‘thank you’ from those in the West that Daesh have sworn to kill.

During the editing of this film, we received the news that General Fouad Khadour was killed on the frontline.

Critics of this film may well accuse me of promoting the Syrian army. In the West they have been accused to war crimes and killing their own people. But on the frontline faced with Al Qaeda and Daesh militants it’s not hard to know what side to support.

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

Narration: From Palmyra we headed west to one of Syria’s main cities, much of it now in ruins.

SOUNDBITE [English] Host:“We’re just entering the city of Homs now. And the first impression is that it is breathtaking. Not just because of the scale of the destruction. But because unlike in other destroyed cities in Syria. Here, it’s a ghost town.”

Narration: Homs was one of the initial strongholds of the militants. After a three years siege all that is left of their ambitions on these streets is devastation. Street after street of it. In Aleppo, people have begun to move back. But here, the destruction is simply too complete. A monument to the madness and utter futility of this war.But amongst the rubble, signs of life. In this ruined home, the owners have returned.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Salem Jabbour:“They broke the bathroom door They made two holes in the wall so they could fire through.This is the corridor where we used to sleep when they shelled. Or we used to hide in the kitchen. There used to be a wardrobe here and the kids beds. When we came back all the beds were broken. In 2004, my kids wrote on the wall, ‘This is our room. Firas and Vicky.’ They don’t have names. This a rabbit and this is his happy wife.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Host:“Norma and Salem Jabbour are Christians. Before the war they had lived in this neighbourhood all their lives.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Salem Jabbour:This is the bedroom. There was a large bed and a closet with all our personal belongings. There was a divider here. It divided our bedroom and the sitting room. These bullet holes were from after we left. They were shooting each other from both sides.”

Narration: The militants in Homs became dominated by Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliated group. In the West they were regularly referred to as rebels. Even as their crimes were becoming apparent.The narrative in the West is that back in 2011, there was a peaceful uprising against the government. But right form the start, police and government officials were being killed as well as protestors. Norma remembers those days, back in 2011.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Norma Jabbour: There was a bakery. I woke up early at six-thirty, to the sound of armed people telling them to close the bakery and to not give people bread.

They then spread so quickly. And I am sitting on the balcony telling myself that the army will come soon. And they did come but the militants fought back.

The next day I decided to leave. They were shooting while I left Fourteen members of the army helped me escape. They called me mother.

They were young men barely with moustaches. And they all died. The militants hit the vehicle with the fourteen soldiers and they all died. And the militants conquered the neighborhood.”

Narration: Only a few minutes’ drive away, we arrived in a very different Homs. The Homs that has been entirely ignored by the Western media. The Homs that always supported the government. It’s a very different scene. The clean streets and almost village feel, a reminder of what life was like before the war.In the car we’re joined by Hayat. She’s lived here all her life. We asked her to take us to where a suicide bomb, claimed by Al Nusra, recently rocked the city.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Hayat Awad: “This is where the bomb exploded about fifteen days ago. A car came loaded with explosives and it detonated here. These houses were damaged. The head of the company was martyred. And many people were wounded. An old lady died on that seat.”

Narration: Everyone in Syria knows people who have been killed. Most have lost family members. Around Hayat’s neck a picture of her son. Killed while fighting for the army.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Hayat Awad: “These are photos of martyrs who were killed in different parts of Syria. To honour these martyrs and for them to stay in our memories and in our children’s memories, we placed them on this wall.

The Armenia neighborhood is a diverse place that represents mother Syria

It has people from all sects. I won’t even bother counting the sects because everyone who belongs to Syria are here.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

Narration: Nearby, the funeral of one of the victims of the recent car bombing. The men are mourning outside the apartment.I spoke to a father, Gadeer Salmo.

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: He says that is daughter was in her way to a photo copy shop to copy some questions for an upcoming exam. She was waiting for the shop to open and that’s when the car bomb went off.”

Narration: His daughter Aya was only 15 years old. Upstairs the women mourned separately. Hayat offers her condolences.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Hayat Awad: “My son is martyred. Your son is martyred. And so is my husband. But the women of Syria have proved to the whole world that we are worthy of carrying out this responsibility.

We are worthy of carrying this message. And we are worthy of standing by our husbands, who are fighting to protect us.

So it is right that we sacrifice our lives because Syria deserves this. Syria is worth it because it is pure and it’s women are resilient.

God bless her. You should be proud. And you are a star in the flag of Syria, which will hopefully stay raised.

God bless you all.”

Narration: We were invited to speak to the girl’s sister. But she was clearly in a state of shock. She showed me pictures of her sister on her phone.

In Syria, only alleged crimes of Bashar Al Assad seem to make headlines in the West. While attacks like this one barely, if at all, receive a mention. And they are all so common throughout Syria and Iraq. April, 2017, a bus convoy, carrying pro regime civilians. A suicide car bomb exploded as food was being handed out to children. 68 of whom were killed. After leaving the funeral, I asked Hayat what she thought about most people in the West’s opposition to the Syrian regime.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Hayat Awad: “In Syria we are offering martyrs. We are sacrificing our children: our sons and our daughters. It’s easy for a mother to cry. This is what we do to defend the country. And we are defending the mothers in the UK, Germany and America so they don’t have to cry. But our children are paying the price. We are fighting terrorism in our land so it doesn’t reach them. We are crying today so the world does not have to cry later. And our children are sacrificing their lives so that the rest do not have to taste this bitterness.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: I asked her whether the pain of losing her own child is still raw.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Hayat Awad: “No, it’s still new. But every child is unique. And I can’t tell you that I can forget him.”

Narration: The Road to Aleppo. Civilian cars had long become a rarity. Replaced by supply lorries, oil tankers, military convoys and refugees.

At some points, the aftermath of battles past.Army convoys ambushed by militants. A reminder of the danger on this road, that shoots out like a spider web into militant territory.

Only a few Kilometres to the West, Tahrir Al Sham, the Al Qaeda affiliated group. To the East, Daesh. Only ten or so Kilometres back. Although we’d soon find out, they get a lot closer than that.

We were now on the most dangerous part of the route. Felled pylons and debris and for miles no other cars on the road but us. If it didn’t feel like the end of the world, it certainly felt like civilisation was under serious threat of falling to the barbarians.

At one of the army bases that dot this road, we met major Alaa. He told me how important this road is, without it they would have lost the entire north of the country.

He then took us for a walk, off road. About one hundred meters out, a familiar smell, pungent and thick. We tried to get down wind.

And there they were. Daesh barbarians. North African, the Major said. They’d come a long way to die out here.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Major Alaa: “One terrorist group attacked that point. Another terrorist group, that group, was trying to supply Daesh with weapons. This group was killed. This is what remains.

We set up an ambush. We put explosives in the ground and attacked them with light weapons. We killed them and we took their weapons.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: “I asked Major Alaa. Why nobody had buried them. They’d been there for six days. They don’t deserve it, he replied and he meant it.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Major Alaa: “This is the fate of every terrorist who sells his soul and himself to terrorism. This is their fate.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:32

Narration: The TOW missile lying next to the bodies, in pieces was clearly American. Daesh militants using high tech American weapons. How did it come to this?

Western governments including my own had been supporting the militants since the war began. With weapons, money and training. I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed by that. By my countries involvement accidental or otherwise for the rise of the barbarians. Not least as, it had seemed to benefit no one but the dead. Back in the car we continued our tour of this Mad Max Fury Road.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Major Alaa: “This hill and the one right next to it was attacked by Daesh last year, killing sixty-five martyrs. They cut off their heads and burnt their bodies. When we liberated it we lost two soldiers and five were wounded.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: At the base we spoke to the soldiers. Who do you think is supporting Al Qaeda and Daesh?”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Colonel Samer Yassin: “- When it comes to arms, most of it is American. There is also Bulgarian and Australian. The rockets are American. The sniper rifles are Australian and from other countries. Some weapons are Israeli.

- And what do you think about western weapons ending up here, fighting you?

- We are in a state of war and we are defending our country and fighting for what is right. And they are fighting for the wrong side. And their end is near. We are on the right side and with our friends, the Iranians and other armies of resistance. Victory is for the Syrian army God Willing.”

Narration: These soldiers are part of the elite Tiger force. And were the same men who’d ambushed the barbarians we’d seen earlier rotting in the desert.

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: “- Who’s harder to fight Daesh, or Al Qaeda?”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Colonel Samer Yassin: “Daesh. Daesh comes from a culture of cutting peoples heads off. Al Nusra is a lighter version of Daesh but Daesh instills more fear. The horror of what they are doing is something new to humanity. The first of its kind. This is why we are here to eliminate Deash and Al Nusra.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: “And what about the Western backed, Free Syrian Army?”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Colonel Samer Yassin: “There is no Free Syrian Army or moderate opposition. Every militant’s culture is killing, murdering and cutting peoples heads off. They don’t care if its women or old men. There is no such things as a moderate opposition.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: “How long do you think you’re going to be in this base, surrounded Al Qaeda and Daesh?”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Colonel Samer Yassin: “Until the foreign support of terrorists stops.”

Narration: The sheer scale of destruction in Syria, can at times feel overwhelming. But amongst the ruins, there is opportunity.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Norma Jabbour: “Everyday, stores are opening up again and people are coming back. Every day is better than the one before.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Salem Jabbour: “The future is ours.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Norma Jabbour: “In the future, people will get back to their jobs. Look at all the construction that’s needed. Don’t we need people to work here?”

SOUNDBITE [English] Host: I asked them whether they could ever forgive those who did this to their neighborhood.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Norma Jabbour: “In order for us to continue we need to forgive. But things take time. It needs time. It’s hard but life must go on.

What happened to us is not easy. Just look around. If this happened to you, would you forgive? Would you forgive? No you wouldn’t. It’s hard.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Salem Jabbour: “The first step is the law. They should give themselves up and be judged according to Syrian law And after they do time, or if they are proven innocent, then you can ask us whether we forgive or not.”

Narration: In my time covering the Syrian war, it has been the sectarianism, the massacres committed by Daesh and Al Qaeda that have haunted me the most. But as we left’s the Jabbour’s apartment, a hopeful scene on the street outside. A Sunni, a Shia, two Christians and a cat, in a country that can surely only improve from here.

It had been a long journey. Damascus, Palmyra. Up the Aleppo road. Spending time in Syria, you soon learn to forget everything you read or see about the war back home. The Syrian army is ridiculed and accused of the most heinous crimes by the West, but clearly, without them, this whole country would have fallen to Daesh and Al Qaeda. And surely, they deserve some respect for that.

Upon arriving in Aleppo, a devastating sight. I‘d seen ruined cities before, elsewhere in the Middle East. But this was on another scale. It seemed to go on forever. A museum to the sheer scale of this terrible war that has been a blight on the world’s conscious for six long years. But all war’s must come to an end. The fear in Syria, is whether the end of this war, may simply mark the start of another.

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