Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski were recently in Syria. They were some of the only Western media allowed in. Their reporting was monitored by the Syrian government. This is an account of the trip.
FRIDAY JUNE 22
On the way into town late at night from Damascus airport, cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and I quickly realize things are not quite right in Syria. The driver tells us he will go fast and not stop. The interpreter says they don’t stop at red lights. The capital is jittery. We stop at one well-armed checkpoint. The scene of a recent protest, complete with burning tires, is pointed out. Not far from the halls of power here.
We arrive at the Four Seasons Hotel. It’s a classic wartime dichotomy. Five-star comfort complete with pool, gym … and not-so-distant clashes. We’re just about the only ones there, but still have to push for the room we want. We are one of the only Western media teams in Syria right now. After waiting months for visas, we’ll take it.
After a few hours of sleep we check out the scene in the center of the Old Town. The market -- or souk -- was closed Friday for the Muslim holy day but the scene in front of the mosque nearby is buzzing … with plainclothes security. They’re doing random checks of folks coming to worship, making sure the wrong type doesn’t turn Friday prayers into Friday protest.
There is, in fact, a small rally held outside after the service. Well-organized and well-orchestrated, it is in FAVOR of Assad. Banners, posters of the leader, headbands, whipped-up enthusiasm all are on display, to try to counter-balance dozens of anti-regime protests we’re told are “popping-up” all across the country. The worshippers file by with barely an acknowledgement.
The rest of the day is taken up by the news of the day: A Turkish plane is shot down by Syrian air defenses. This internal conflict is quickly spreading regionally.
SATURDAY JUNE 23
This morning we’re brought to the main military hospital. We watch as Syrian flag-draped casket after casket are carried out, then slid into the backs of waiting ambulances for burial. All the dead were Syrian military soldiers and officers who had been killed in clashes with rebels nearby. Forty bodies were buried this day. We’re told this is becoming a daily ritual, not just at this hospital but at others across the country. The 16 month-long uprising is taking its toll on all sides.
One older opposition figure, Abdul Aziz Khayer, tells me, “the government is under the illusion they can rule by military.”
Damascus on a Saturday is busy with people, cars and business. While the economy is hurting due to international sanctions, and the tourism trade is non-existent, life goes on here. Reports of the fighting getting closer are real. But folks aren’t locked up in their houses….yet.
SUNDAY JUNE 24
We head up to the city of Homs (two-hour drive north of Damascus), the epicenter of the months’ long uprising against President Basher al-Assad. It has been a bloody symbol of the fight tearing this country apart. As we approach the city, checkpoint after checkpoint indicates this is a city (of 1 million) on lockdown. High sandbag walls protect official buildings. And one other thing : Our mobile phones don’t work. For three days the authorities have shut down this vital lifeline in the city. To limit “comms” between the fighters.
We meet with “Governor” of Homs, Ghassan Aldul All. He tells me he’s a retired general and long-time resident of the place, so he knows best how to handle the “situation.” He tells me it is “armed militants fighting the country, all planned from the outside.” All during our interview in his well-appointed residence, the dull thud of not-so-distant explosions and gun blasts rumbles on.
Up on the roof of our hotel we can see much of the city. Much of it is under attack…by the Syrian Army. We listen as the shells are fired from artillery pieces on the city’s outskirts. Then, a few seconds later, they land with an impact near the very center of the city. Puffs of black and white smoke shoot up.
When security forces finish in one area they move on to the next. And then the next. All told, at least four areas, including the historic Old Town, were being hit during the time we are there, every few minutes, non-stop, day and night.
In between the blasts (as well as tank and mortar fire) there is the crackle of small arms fire coming from the armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army. This is, in fact, what this onslaught is all about. The government says these areas are strongholds of “militant terrorists” and have to be routed out.
The hitch is, there are civilians in these buildings, and they are getting killed, injured and trapped. In one of the understatements of the trip, the head of the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Shabeer Shaban, tells me “…the situation is not safe.”
MONDAY JUNE 25
We were taken to the Baba Amr district, or what is left of it after being targeted by the Syrian security forces. It, too, was a stronghold of opposition support. Now much of the main street is rubble. The now-infamous and much-repeated Vietnam War line came to mind: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Walking down the street, with every building pockmarked by artillery blasts, on this hot scorching day, it's hard to imagine that on a cold morning last March, American reporter Marie Colvin, working for the UK Sunday Times, huddled in a building nearby and then was killed by a Syrian Army artillery shell.
Now there is virtually no one around, except for kids from the few families living in the wrecked buildings, playing amid the rubble. One small group sweeps dust from one corner of the street to the other. A few people trundle with aid packages down the street. And military patrols look for stray snipers.
With government officials nearby and listening, one man we speak with assures me “everything is fine here.”
Incredibly, in the neighborhood just a few streets over, all IS “fine.” Streets are busy with traffic, shops are open, people are out. This area also happens to be loyal to Assad. A few residents find the time to complain about one or two stray bullet holes in their storefronts. I think about Baba Amr’s destruction.
TUESDAY JUNE 26
We catch up with Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood, who’s unenviable task is heading up the UN observer mission in Syria aimed at observing a cease-fire that never really held.
I ask him how he feels about the soaring violence. Looking dejected but determined, he replies, “Obviously I’m disappointed. I come from a position that violence only leads to more violence. Breaking that cycle is the challenge.”
The observers have been grounded for more than a week at this point due to dangers in the field. Most of the time their bullet-ridden vehicles sit in the hotel parking lot. On this day, though, they go out on a “humanitarian” mission to one of Damascus’ main hospitals, which happens to be nearby the site of a suicide attack awhile back.
The staff seems a bit surprised by the visit. And the information gathered is routine. Clearly the UN soldiers are marking time -- while the bombs fall.
Comments made by Assad to his new “cabinet” are aired on state TV. He states what seems increasingly obvious as the days go on here in Syria: “We live in a real state of war.” He went on to say, “All policies…need to be directed to winning this war.” The change of tone and note of urgency is clear to locals. To us, it seemed, the next few days could see a further “ratcheting-up” of the bloodshed.
WEDNESDAY JUNE 27
We wake up to the news of a big attack on a pro-regime TV station on the outskirts of Damascus. We arrive to find the place still burning and smoldering. It turns out dozens of gunmen breached the station’s walls, shot up the place, killing seven, and then set off six bombs which damaged several of the buildings heavily.
We found splattered blood and bullet holes around the administrator’s office, wrecked TV equipment in studios. Pierre and I, who have both seen a lot of bomb aftermath, decide this is a well-coordinated precision attack. It was aimed at what was apparently a government symbol.
For the rebels, though, the killing of journalists and the targeting of media was a PR disaster. The government called it a “massacre.” The UN mission and even the White House condemning it. Yara Saleh, a colleague of the journalists, angrily pointed to the rubble and yelled at me, “They want democracy?…This is democracy!”
Driving around the Damascus “countryside,” we’re also struck by the massive amount of security, checkpoints and soldiers. We’re told one town we drive through could be OK with the regime, the next could be opposed. While the uprising still didn’t feel like a “Civil War,” it certainly does seem that Syria is developing some deep dangerous splits. And the capital is becoming encircled by hate.
THURSDAY JUNE 28
We head back to the city of Homs for another look at this critical battleground. We go to Syrian Arab Red Crescent to speak with health workers still unable to get into the area targeted by the security forces. We shoot some video around the office in what should be a stable neutral neighborhood.
A closer look reveals more. A shot-up parked car sits on the side of the road. A poster of Assad hangs in tatters on a wall, unrepaired. Anti-regime graffiti is painted over by authorities.
And the hushed but firm words off camera to me of a young man at a storefront. Expressing his opposition to the government, he tells me in translated Arabic, “We will win.” I ask how. He says, “We are brave.”
Then things change fast. A Syrian tank trundles by to fire at rebels in the next area over. A few soldiers think cameraman Pierre wants to shoot video of them and fire over his head. As the tank blasts toward the rebels, a sniper fires from an unfinished apartment building behind us. People duck. As we shelter in the Red Crescent office, workers there are fearful we’ve made them a target. We leave and are soon stopped by the Syrian military. It takes about an hour for us to talk our way out of that one.
Back in Damascus, we find another attack on the capital. Just five minutes from our hotel rebels have planted bombs in a car park right across the street from the main court building and the main historic market. While no one was killed, it is a spectacular scene of black smoke in the middle of a busy Thursday. We pick our way through mangled cars, grease and oil from the fires, debris thrown all around. A clearly upset woman stood in the middle of it all, screaming at the top of her lungs. Things are beginning to come apart here.
FRIDAY JUNE 29
This day brings another shock. Amateur video is broadcast purporting to show white linen-shrouded bodies lined up in a large room. Dozens of people are said to have been killed in the city of Douma, just 10 miles outside of Damascus. Opposition are calling it a “massacre.”
We have no confirmation of these facts, but our contacts say the city of 500,000 is under continuous bombardment. Those who can get out….are leaving.
Damascus, itself, is calmer. But there is a lot of trouble under the surface. And some areas that are clearly anti-government and have acted on those feelings. One of those is Midan. Nearly every week there is some kind of anti-regime protest. As we drove close to it there was massive security.
When we walked into the neighborhood, people were wary. If you show up as a stranger with a camera, they think you’re government. Refused comments, under breath expletive, hands to lens.But some folks show the well-known warmth of the Syrian people.
A baker gave us all rolls to munch on and refused money for them.
When I asked him how things were going, he gave me one of the classic wink and a nod lines I’ve come to accept…and interpret…on this trip. With a half-smile, he replied :
“Things are ‘so-so’.”
SATURDAY JUNE 30
A big day for Syrian diplomacy. The “Action Group” convening in Geneva is trying to decide from afar the fate of the conflict.We watched on satellite TV and as soon as Kofi Annan was nearing the end of his statement realized that it would be a non-starter.
Russia had prevailed, and there would be no specific call for Assad to leave. No matter how hard Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others tried to spin it later, it was a communiqué with no teeth.
Earlier in the day we met with a high-ranking Syrian official, and he pretty much previewed the line that Syria would eventually take regarding efforts to end the conflict.
In summary his position was: Foreign-supported terrorists are attacking Syria. The Syrian government has to finish them off. We won’t have any solutions imposed form the outside.
And, by the way, he said several times, why is the US supporting Al Qaeda in Syria?
Another long-time opposition figure, Hassan Abdul Azim, expressed to me the consensus opinion that the uprising is home grown: “All they want is freedom and justice without any support.”
We also ducked into the main shopping souk to see what the mood this Saturday is among the people. If they were concerned about clashes going on a few miles away they didn’t show it.
And if they were interested in the global diplomacy they didn’t express it. There was, however, a big crowd of women checking out the items in front of one bathing suit and lingerie shop. . .
SUNDAY JULY 1
Horror compounded upon horror. New amateur video from another neighborhood of Damascus called Zamalka supposedly showed a funeral procession Saturday torn apart by an explosion.
The aftermath of smoke, destruction and splayed body parts was hard to watch. The opposition claimed it was a government-backed car bomb.
We decided to go there to see for ourselves. The day after, the area was shut down.
On a busy Muslim workday shopkeepers were on protest strike, people were off the street. And victims from the day before were hurriedly buried in a mass grave.
For their part, Syrian security on the ground told us it was a pro-opposition terrorist targeting their checkpoint and the bomb went off in the wrong place.
Of course these folks had more to say to us when we were there.
Yanking us out of the car (after relieving us of Pierre’s camera, me of my Blackberry and iPhone and some of our money) the local commander gave us a lecture about the US wanting to be “on top of everyone” and that we should tell the real story.
Again, after some careful negotiations, most items (not the cash) was returned and we were on our way.
That city of Douma is just up the road from Zamalka.
After being pounded for days, that city is being cleared by troops because some rebels use it as a base.
It probably didn’t help those there that overall sentiment in the town is anti-regime. As we rolled by on the highway, we could see plumes of smoke from continuing hits.
The last stop of the trip was for a late lunch with the team at a mountaintop restaurant overlooking the sprawling city of Damascus.
Looking out from many hundreds of feet up, all looked calm and peaceful.
There were a few telltale signs of trouble.
Smoke was rising from one distant suburb. And our translator pointed out the anti-regime neighborhood on lockdown the other day.
As were driving down we saw the monumental Presidential Palace where Bashar al-Assad formally spends his time (we’re told he lives with his wife most of the time in a more modest apartment…or two).
The place had the feel of other palaces of other leaders Pierre and I had seen in other countries. We wondered what would be the future of President Assad…and Syria.