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U.N. Monitors Exit Syria, Failing to Stop Bloodshed

August 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Independent estimates say 20,000 have died since the Syrian uprising began. Now, U.N. monitors have left, failing to stop the violence. Jeffrey Brown reports. Then Margaret Warner talks to the Guardian's Ghaith Adbul-Ahad, who has been following Syrian rebels on the ground as they struggle to hold government troops at bay.

JEFFREY BROWN: “It was just another regular day in Damascus,” the words of a resident of the Syrian capital where, on this day, shelling and clashes were intense.

Government forces backed by tanks and helicopters attacked an area just outside the city and the last of the United Nations military observers left the city, unable to stem the violence.

Thick black smoke billowed above the Daraya suburb of Damascus today, as Bashar al-Assad’s military pounded parts of the capital. Elements loyal to Assad were said to be going house to house in search of regime opponents.

By late morning, an opposition group said more than 70 people had been killed, a claim impossible to verify.

The offensive is part of a renewed government campaign that began yesterday against neighborhoods in and around Damascus, where the rebellion has proven resilient. Among those caught in the crossfire, five children and their mother, reportedly killed by government shelling, their bodies wrapped and laid in repose beneath a minaret in Daraya.

According to independent estimates, 20,000 people have now died since the Syrian uprising began 18 months ago. Today, the country’s deputy foreign minister blamed regional actors and the West for what has become civil war.

FAISAL AL-MIQDAD, Syrian deputy foreign minister: I think the dangerous support by Turkey of the terrorist gangs, of providing these with sophisticated weapons and of giving each terrorist in the world, including al-Qaida, free access to Turkey to come to Syria.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also today, amateur video from the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army purported to show an ambush of a government checkpoint near Hama, to the north of Damascus.

And on the country’s eastern border with Iraq, pitched fighting was reported at the border crossing of Al-Bukamal. At the same time, in Aleppo, fighting continued, and Amnesty International reported on its own 10-day fact-finding mission to Syria’s largest city.

It said artillery and mortar fire, coupled with government airstrikes, are killing mostly civilians there, including large numbers of women and children.

A team from the NewsHour’s PBS partner “Frontline” was in Syria recently, in Idlib province and the town of Saraqeb, the city of Azaz, and for six days in Aleppo. Two of its journalists spent time with different elements of the Free Syrian Army groups for nearly two weeks.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD, “Frontline”: We’re crossing the front lines in the city of Aleppo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian who was reporting on an upcoming “Frontline” documentary.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: One of the Libyan fighters came to me and told me, they don’t know how to fight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Abdul-Ahad and producer Jamie Doran left Syria yesterday.

Margaret Warner spoke with Abdul-Ahad from Istanbul earlier this evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, welcome. Thank you for joining us


MARGARET WARNER: Give us a flavor of what the fighting was like. I know you were in three different places.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: It was the heaviest fighting I have seen.

I have been to Afghanistan. I have been to Somalia. I have been to Yemen. I have been to different places. This is the heaviest fighting I have seen since Iraq, since the Fallujah, Najaf battles in Iraq, like serious heavy urban warfare, people who are like fighting block to block, street to street. It was really, really intense fighting.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what kind of weaponry do the rebels have?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: The rebels, they only have Kalashnikovs, AK-47s and RPGs. They use these weapons to fight airplanes, jet fighters, MiGs.

So there is no balance in terms of weapons. Yet, at the same time, we’re talking about the Syrian army, the government army that is totally, I think, demoralized.

I was in situations where they could have totally crushed the rebels, yet they were too scared to push down a street.

MARGARET WARNER: Describe — so what’s the dynamic like? I mean, do they fight for a particular block? Do they engage in the direct kind of combat?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: You know, after the initial push in Aleppo when the rebels took over this neighborhood of Salaheddine and other neighborhoods, the government started pushing them back.

So, the government’s strategy is shelling, bombing by jet aircrafts and then pushing in tanks. The rebels would retreat. Then they start like fighting street to street, building to building. They start digging holes from one building to the other, from apartment block to the other. And they fight over streets.

So, to take over one street in Aleppo, it’s a huge battle. It lasts one day, two days. The Syrian government authority is sometimes only 15 meters around a tank. That’s their — that’s the limit of their control over the city. The rebels are disorganized. They don’t lack ammunition. They don’t lack weapons. But what they really lack is leadership and coordination.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me just can ask you this. There’s been a lot of concern about al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters coming in. Did you see that?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I did see many foreign fighters.

I did see Pakistanis, Chechens, Saudis, Turks. I did see many, many foreign fighters. They constitute something between 5 percent to 10 percent of the main fighting force of the Syrian rebels. They coordinate with the Free Syrian Army. There is a huge split between the two units. But they do exist underground.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you have — did you get a chance even to talk to any of them and to get a sense of what vision of Syria, what they’re fighting for, what they think the future holds?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: If you talk to the Free Syrian Army, to the rebels, they tell you, we just want to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. We will have a democracy. People would vote. It will be a sort of secular democracy.

If you talk to the jihadis, to the foreign fighters, they use the same rhetoric that they used in Iraq. They talk about an Islamic state. They talk about jihad. They talk about — they link Syria to Iraq to other places in the world. So it depends who you’re talking to.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about ordinary civilians? Did you get any sense of how they’re coping with this?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Pretty horrible for the local civilians.

At the front lines, you see these skirmishes taking place. You see snipers shooting in the middle of the street. And then in the middle of that street, you see a civilian carrying two plastic bags walking, trying to retrieve their — whatever left in their houses. It’s very, very heavy on the civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: And did you feel in danger? Were you in danger?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, of course. It is a front-line situation and you have people — it was pretty intense.

You meet people in the morning, you see them over breakfast, and then the end of the day, they’re dead. I spent the night with a commander. We had dinner one night. The next day, we had tea. And then at the end of that day, he was dead. It was very, very intense.

As I said, I haven’t seen such an intense fighting since the days of Iraq. You know, you’re standing in there in the street corner, and then a jet fighter would pass over you and drops a bomb 50, 100 meters away. So it was a very, very difficult situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, thank you so much.