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Syrian Rebels Use ‘Cat and Mouse’ Tactics to Wage War

September 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fighting is heard, seen and smelled in the capital of Syria, as the civil war rages on, claiming more than 23,000 lives since the uprising began 18 months ago. Margaret Warner talks to Independent Television News' Bill Neely from Damascus, who says that neither the rebels nor the Syrian regime are capable of winning.
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MARGARET WARNER: Bill Neely of Independent Television News is on the ground in Damascus. We spoke to him earlier today over a portable satellite uplink.

Bill Neely, thank you for joining us.

Tell us what you have been observing in Damascus. How does the conflict look from where you are?

BILL NEELY, Independent Television News: Well, I was last here two months ago, and I would say then that the war was at the doorstep of Damascus.

I would say right now it’s right in the front room of Damascus. And there’s no question that President Assad can look out his window any time he wants over this city and see it happening and hear it happening right in front of him.

I have spent the last two days I suppose on the outskirts of three — and, just as I speak, there are more explosions in the background there. I have been on the outskirts of three districts in the south of the capital.

Now, they’re not suburbs. They are in Damascus city itself, and they are being bombarded relentlessly by the army, which is also using Russian-made MiG warplanes. Now, they say they’re attacking rebels who are inside those districts, and that bombardment has been going on, as I say, for days.

There are reports that dozens, if not hundreds of people have been killed.

The rebels say they withdrew from those districts yesterday, partly because they ran out of ammunition and, interestingly, because they said they weren’t getting the support of people in neighboring areas. So they made what they call a strategic withdrawal.

But the result of the bombardment is that every day across the center of this capital there is a huge plume of black smoke.

So anyone who ever thought the war wasn’t coming to the very heart of Damascus knows it now because they can see it and they can hear it, and certainly in some of the areas you can actually smell it.

MARGARET WARNER: Does the fact that they withdrew from those neighborhoods where they have been fighting for a couple of weeks, does that suggest to you that the Syrian army is, I don’t know, regaining momentum, at least in Damascus?

BILL NEELY: It’s very difficult with the battles in every one of these cities, whether it’s Damascus or Aleppo or Homs, and there’s fighting in all three of those major cities at the moment.

You either see in a sense the glass half-full or the glass half-empty. First of all, the rebels take an area or dominate it, and the regime forces are on the back foot.

Then, the regime forces pound these cities with relentless airpower, artillery, mortars and shelling and troops, and they regain some momentum and the rebels leave.

So it’s a game of — it’s not a game — it’s a war, but it’s almost a cat-and-mouse thing. The rebels pop up in one place, they’re hit, they withdraw. The Assad forces occupy that area, but no sooner have they occupied it than they are engaged in a battle somewhere else.

And I think that’s the story of this war. It seems to be one that neither side at the moment, after 18 months, is quite capable of winning. And President Assad said today in a newspaper interview with an Egyptian newspaper the rebels will not win this war. Interestingly, he didn’t say, I will win.

And perhaps that’s because he’s not quite so confident anymore that he will win it.

MARGARET WARNER: The big story today out of Syria was this attack by a fighter jet by, the Syrian fighter jet on a gas station near the Turkish border. Has the Assad regime been using increasingly airpower? And, if so, just tell us about it.

BILL NEELY: Well, the Assad regime has definitely been using more and more airpower.

As for exactly what happened today, well, we know there was some kind of explosion or attack at this gas station. It seems that dozens are dead. At least, that’s what local people are saying. And they are blaming it on a regime warplane.

It could be that the regime was retaliating because the Free Syrian Army, the rebels, took over a checkpoint in that area yesterday. This attack may have been, if you like, the revenge of the regime.

But truth is very difficult to pin down in this incident and in many others. But I think we can say with absolute certainty is the use of airpower is increasing. We have seen MiGs, MiG fighter jets across Damascus in the last couple of days.

I have seen attack helicopters circling, searching for targets in the area behind me. The rebels have been attacking airplanes just trying to counter this threat. And they have brought down at least one MiG and many helicopters.

Now, is the use of airpower by President Assad a game changer? Well, you cannot win a war from 10,000 feet, but you can disrupt the rebels and you can inflict massive casualties.

And that’s certainly happening.

Human rights groups saying that there’s indiscriminate bombing by warplanes of residential areas and that civilians are being slaughtered.

And the death toll is certainly increasing. I mean, last month was a record, 5,400 people reported killed last month, including 4,000 civilians. Undoubtedly, the use of airpower contributed to that death toll. And this month, it’s no better. The death toll, it is hundreds every day.

And if the reports of that airstrike on a gas station are true, then it will be hundreds dead today across this country.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Bill Neely of ITN News, thank you very much.