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Forces Clash in Syria’s Two Largest Cities

July 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Free Syrian Army battled for control over Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Independent Television News' John Irvine and Alex Thomson report on the violence that continues between rebels and government troops.
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GWEN IFILL: Syria acknowledged for the first time that it has chemical and biological weapons. But as fierce fighting there continued, the Syrian foreign minister said the weapons wouldn’t be used to crush the rebels. President Obama said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would be held accountable if his regime did use chemical weapons.

We have two reports about the war in Syria from Independent Television News, beginning with John Irvine on the shelling in the country’s second largest city, Aleppo. He filed his story from Beirut, Lebanon.

JOHN IRVINE: A column of Syrian army tanks used to be an irresistible force, but not anymore. This is a rebel ambush in the streets of Aleppo. One tank, the rebels commandeer. At least two others are destroyed. A burning hulk becomes the backdrop for a triumphant group photograph.

As the war escalates, the Syrian armed forces are digging deeper into their arsenal. Fast jets are now being used for bombing runs. The regime has thrown almost everything it has against its own people, but it apparently draws the line at chemical weapons.

JIHAD MAKDISSI, Syrian Foreign Ministry: Any talks of WMD or any unconventional weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possess would never, would never be used against civilian or against the Syrian people during this crisis.

JOHN IRVINE: What he said next amounted to a warning to the outside world not to get involved.

JIHAD MAKDISSI: These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.

WILLIAM HAGUE, British foreign secretary: What is actually happening is, their own people are rising up against a brutal police state. It has nothing to do with any aggression from anywhere else in the world.

JOHN IRVINE: This conflict is 16 months old. But, still, both sides share an ability to live to fight another day.

GWEN IFILL: Damascus has been the scene of pitched battles between rebel and government troops since the bomb attack that killed four of Assad’s closest security officials last week. There have been ongoing clashes in a neighborhood in the capital known as Midan.

Alex Thomson reports on the devastation there.

ALEX THOMSON: The banality of normality, Damascene traffic jams again a feature of life here. The gains claimed by the rebels in the capital appear exaggerated.

The regime’s boast that they have pushed the fighters out of some districts altogether is ever more credible, but independent reporting is near impossible. We’re heading for Midan, where fighting has been prolonged and intense in recent days. An army checkpoint seals off the edge of the district. You film covertly and fast and move on in a game of cat-and-mouse to try and get into the area.

And then, our guide, who would better stay anonymous, says, we’re here. Look around. He hardly needs to. Government forces turned helicopter gunships, tanks, mortars, rockets, heavy machine guns on this district for three days.

The government says, in two days’ time, families can begin moving back into Midan. But just take a look at what the family will find when they move back to this house. People say, yes, of course, the rebel fighters have been pushed out, but they will fight another day in another way. And there is no chance that President Assad will win this civil war.

A shopkeeper who fled the fighting comes back to find his business has disintegrated. In theory, the government will pay, but all around us, they’re talking now off-camera of a massacre here. Finally, one man will tell us anonymously everything he knows.

MAN: Because this is the only family who stay in their district during that time. They want to leave in a peaceful way. And they couldn’t right now.

ALEX THOMSON: Channel 4 News spoke to seven residents independently of each other, who all either named the Ismaili family as the victims or the figure of 16 being killed.

We were sent this video said to show the scene of the killings. The details of a family shot through the head can’t be shown. You do see the poignant sight of an unfinished family meal. House after house trashed. Everyone here said soldiers or the shabiha militias went on an orgy of looting here. They know Syrians keep large amounts of cash at home.

This man said the militias stole 18,000 pounds from his place — outside, the pathetic remains of rebel barricades, futile against organized ground and air assault, the tank tracks of a departed government army. Weirdly, the authorities have fastidiously painted over most of the anti-Assad graffiti which covered the walls around here and left their own: “The soldiers of God were here.”

President Assad has won the battle for Damascus, and won it convincingly, but everyone knows winning the battle is not the same as winning the war.