The Endgame in Syria Assad's Bloody Battle to Cling to Power


Part 2: Blood Leading to the Entrance

For now, the regime is doing everything it can to hold onto the central part of the country. In Rastan last week, the only place left to treat the wounded was a small hospital operated by the rebels in one of the city's deepest basements. The entrance is hidden down two flights of stairs at the end of an alley in a small passageway between two houses. But the trail of blood leading to the entrance makes it easy to find.

Downstairs, in the pale fluorescent light, the last three doctors in the city take turns performing surgery. All other physicians are dead, have fled or have been taken away by the security services. A doctor is a dangerous thing to be in Syria these days. Those who treat protesters, not to mention FSA fighters, risk their lives.

Nurses in headscarves and the thin robes worn by conservative Muslim women fill syringes with quick flicks of the wrist and tear open the sterile packages with their teeth, so that they can simultaneously hold clamps, lights and equipment during the operations. No one sees them shedding a tear. It's the men who are weeping, like the old male nurse who, seemingly at the end of his rope, stands at the door, smoking and in tears, as one child after another is carried in.

A little boy, sliced apart by the shrapnel from a tank shell, lies wrapped in a blanket. His mother tries to hold him, but suddenly she has only his leg in her hand, and drops it with a scream of sheer terror. A 10-year-old boy is brought in who looks almost uninjured. For an hour and a half, a doctor and the nurses try everything possible to revive the boy, injecting him with adrenalin, massaging his heart and using defibrillator paddles, but to no avail. A piece of grenade shrapnel smaller than a fingernail has entered his heart through his back. His father carries the boy outside, wrapped in a white sheet.

Copious Amounts of Explosives

In the midst of the horror, there is also another microcosm in the basements of abandoned schools, party buildings and mansions in Rastan: the Katibas, the FSA brigades, which are better-organized and numerous in Rastan, the former officers' city, than anywhere else in Syria. There are 2,000 of them, including 130 officers. The Katibas use religious-sounding names, like "Men of God" or "Ali Ibn Abi Talib," named after the fourth caliph. Their leader, Lieutenant Faïs Abdullah, clean-shaven only seven months ago, now sports a large beard. He says that anyone who wants to fight alongside him has to believe in God.

A specific god?

It doesn't matter, he says. They can be Muslims, Druze or Christians.

But his 70 men can hardly be seen praying. Instead, they spend more time opening their Facebook page