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

By Christoph Reuter

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 Faļs 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 pages, using the intermittent Internet connection on their satellite telephone. Their practical role model isn't the Prophet Muhammad, but an extremely popular Turkish actor who stars in TV series and lives in Syria, a James Bond wannabe who fights evil, engages in high-speed chases and uses copious amounts of explosives.

Later on, Faļs Abdullah says that the beard, the talk of religion and the promises of paradise have to be seen in a certain context: "What can I offer someone who is supposed to confront the tanks of Assad's army with not much more than a Kalashnikov?"

Within months, young officers here have become local commanders. Using Facebook and YouTube, they try to boost their profiles, get on Al-Jazeera programs and impress wealthy Syrian exiles and other financiers. The nominal FSA commander in Turkish exile, Riad al-Assad, has little to offer and no one under his command.

The Search for a Phantom

It seems hardly likely that the jihadists will take over after the regime has been overthrown. Instead, the country could face a struggle for influence among the Katibas, of which there are 22 in Rastan alone. The Katibas have joined forces to form a military council, but the largest of them, a brigade founded by a nephew of the former defense minister, has declined to join.

History may not repeat itself, but it does have a propensity for variations. Just as it was the longstanding defense minister, Mustafa Tlass, who turned Rastan into the city of officers, it was his relative, Lieutenant Abdul Rasak Tlass, who was one of the first to begin the armed resistance against the regime.

When we encountered Tlass in the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs last December, he was leading a small band of pitifully armed defectors. An attempt to meet him again this summer turns into a search for a phantom. Everyone knows his name and his Faruk Brigade is now the largest in Syria, with 7,000 men fighting under its banner in devastated Homs alone. But where is Tlass? First we are told he is in Homs, then in Rastan and then in Talbisa, always in a different place. After a week, a messenger arrives and tells us to be ready that evening. At the appointed time, a car arrives and takes us across the city to a house located hardly a hundred meters below a military tank position. No one would expect him to be here, says Tlass, probably the most wanted man in Syria. He sits down in the middle of the room.

It will only take a few weeks more to bring down the government, he says.

And then? Will he return to the new army as a lieutenant? He smiles briefly. "I will go where the people want to have me," he says. He has immense power, and he knows it. He also insists that the revolution is not an end in itself, "but it's a fight for our rights. We want democracy, not the next dictatorship!"

Last week, from their quarters in a wrecked building in the village of Saan, outside the city, the FSA fighters are looking at a kilometer-wide column of smoke over Rastan, a drone that's buzzing quietly in the air above them, and a helicopter in the distance that's already begun firing. They load a few grenade launchers, a machine gun and ammunition onto two pickups. "Bidna namut," says one of the men, "let's go die." As they depart, a young medic in glasses calls out asking one of those remaining behind to send his greetings to his father. Then they drive off in the direction of the wall of smoke.

A Bullet in the Head

In the towns tormented by Assad's army in the last few months, the troops have written graffiti on the walls. One saying that keeps appearing again and again reads: "Assad forever, or we burn down the country!"

When we leave Rastan, we can still see the wide column of dust and smoke for a long time. In the distance, in the midst of the green countryside, there are other black clouds over what were once the cities of Talbisa and Homs.

The cars leaving the city on this morning are transporting combatants, the wounded and the dead. Suddenly we manage to get a ride on a road where drivers are waiting every few kilometers and scouts are constantly monitoring the route. It's the road used to take the seriously injured out of the country. A patient, his wounds wrapped in makeshift bandages, lies under a blanket on the back of a small truck that's normally used to transport sheep. But what was meant to be his rescue becomes the last journey for the 25-year-old farmer Ubaid Darish Laban, who became engaged 10 days earlier, and who was struck by a bullet in the head. He dies after 40 kilometers.

The truck stops briefly so that the patient can be given a cardiac massage, but Laban's pupils are wide open and frozen. Nothing can bring him back. The truck turns around, back to his village, Umm Hamamia, to his family and to the cemetery. The news has hardly spread before dozens have gathered around the body.

At the cemetery, the men furiously hack into the sunbaked ground, as if it to vent their feelings of rage and helplessness. They tell the mother that she shouldn't weep, because Laban is now a martyr. While invoking paradise, they carry his lifeless body in a circle a few times, but before they can lower the dead man into his grave, a panic erupts. A helicopter has appeared on the horizon. The mourners scatter and take cover behind walls and olive trees. A handful of men, in defiance of death, complete the funeral. Then quiet returns to the small village cemetery in the middle of Syria.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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