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Syria rebels gain foothold in Damascus

28 January 12 10:29
A soldier who has defected to the Free Syrian Army waves a Syrian independence flag in Saqba near Damascus
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor, Damascus

When the BBC team approached a checkpoint set up by the rebel Free Syria Army in the suburbs of Damascus, masked men with Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades moved towards us - a few of them offering dates and biscuits.

It is customary to give mourners something sweet, and a funeral was about to start that they said they were protecting.

I had no idea before I saw them with my own eyes that the Free Syria Army was so active in and around Damascus.

The first time, in a small town called Zabadani, about half an hour from Damascus, it took a while for my brain to catch up with what I was seeing.

We went in there with an official from the ministry of information, who got us through the army cordon that surrounded the town.

A truce had been negotiated with the Free Syria Army - the first time that the Assad regime had properly acknowledged that the loose groups of ill-equipped defectors from its own forces were at all significant.

Even so, when a man who said he was an anti-government activist walked up to us and offered to take us to see the rebel fighters, I couldn't believe my ears.

I thought he was some sort of regime stooge and was playing an elaborate trick. I hadn't realised that the army had pulled out of the town.

Our minder said later that he was horrified, and scared to see the rebel fighters close up, but he hid it so well that I thought he had organised some sort of hoax to discredit the BBC's reporting.

How wrong can you be? It was all real. The Free Syria Army were only 30 minutes from the presidential palace in Damascus.

Since then, I have seen their men in significant numbers inside Damascus itself. They are treated as heroes in the places they have appeared.

It is not exactly clear how long they have been out in the open, setting up roadblocks and building firing positions here in Damascus - but as far as I can tell, it is only the last week or two.

Losing ground

It took 10 months to get a visa to visit Syria for 10 days. Even though I thought I knew the country pretty well - I was a regular visitor before the uprising started last March and I've interviewed the president a couple of times - this trip has been full of surprises.

It has been hard to get out to report freely. But it has been possible, if occasionally hair-raising, and after 10 days I have a much better idea about what is happening.

First of all, it is not a matter of the regime against the rest. President Assad has significant support.

It is probably being eroded by the tide of blood, but he can still can count on most of the Alawite community he comes from - also on many Christians - and significant numbers of Druze and Kurds.

That could be as much as 40% of the population. The Alawites support him because of who he is.

The others believe he will safeguard minorities in a way that the mainly Sunni Muslims in the opposition and the free army would not.

What is also clear is that President Assad is losing ground in and around the capital. The poor Sunni suburbs - grim, poor tangles of concrete - are harbouring the free army.

They are not a match for the president's forces yet. But they are getting stronger.

Dark days ahead

The regime, and the people who want it overthrown, view what is happening here as a fight to the finish. For both sides, it is winner take all.

The fact that the country is splitting along confessional lines is dangerous. In Lebanon, next door, they had a sectarian civil war that pretty much destroyed the country.

In Syria it is not a war yet, but it is starting to look like one. Homs, the centre of the uprising in the north, is paralysed and battered. Deraa, where it started in the south, feels as if it is being patrolled by an occupying army.

There are questions I cannot answer. How much force does the regime hold in reserve? Will the president face a palace coup, perhaps from an Alawite general fearful that Mr Assad's stand will destroy their whole community? And will foreigners intervene decisively, as they did in Libya?

I cannot see how, in the long term, the regime can survive an uprising started by people who are so determined that they demonstrate even when they might get killed. But it will not go quietly.

Everyone I have spoken to here believes the worst days still lie ahead.

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