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'Catastrophe': Journalist behind the lines in Syria sees no end to war

From the front line in what looks ever more like a fight for Syria's capital Damascus, members of the Free Syrian Army appear to be closing in on President Assad's stronghold, at a terrible cost to both sides. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

As International Editor at NBC News' British partner ITV News, Bill Neely has covered the Libyan and Egyptian revolutions, the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is on his fourth trip in seven months to Syria, a country largely off-limits to Western journalists, where he and his team are covering the war. He spoke to msnbc.com's F. Brinley Bruton from Syria where he was witnesssing what he called "the battle for Damascus."

Q: Are you surprised by the level of violence you've seen on this trip?

A: Every day there are surprising things to be seen. On my last trip I was genuinely surprised by the level of destruction in the Baba Amr district of Homs where Marie Colvin (an American correspondent for Britain's Sunday Times) was killed. I think this time it has been really surprising to see three, four miles from the center of Damascus such sustained bombardment. Nobody in Damascus can be unaware of what's happening.


I was surprised to see (the Free Syrian Army) operate quite openly. I mean, on Monday they drove us around for a long time through suburbs of Damascus. There wasn't a sign in sight of any army presence and they weren't hiding themselves, they were driving around with the guns out the window.

Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images

A wounded man is lifted after shelling by Syrian government forces in Qusayr, close to the restive city of Homs, on Tuesday.

A few days ago (I was surprised by) the level of artillery and mortar fire going into Douma. It still has the capacity to shock you that an army will use that level of force to subdue a rebellion.

Q: How do you compare this to other conflicts you have covered in the past?

A: My immediate point of comparison would be [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi [shelling] of the town of Zawiya which was 30 miles from Tripoli. Again there was a staggering level of force used in the bombardment.

In Kosovo it was very clear that it was ethnic cleansing, that Orthodox Christian Serbs were ethnically cleansing Muslims, as they had done in Bosnia. It is different here. The suburbs I was in yesterday are Sunni and the regime is not Sunni, it's Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam, so there is a sectarian element to it. I think the Kosovo thing was even more, well, brutal.

Q: Have we reached a tipping point in the conflict?

A: My view was was that this was a civil war several months ago, and I think if there were any doubt [Syrian President Bashar] Assad answered that question a few days ago when he said this is a war on all fronts.

Homs and other Syrian suburbs continue to be relentlessly shelled. Meanwhile, rebel fighters targeted the main court building in the capital. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

We don't like to call it a war in the West because we don't have a damn clue what to do about it. At the minute it seems to me it is in the interest of the great powers to almost play this down.

AFP - Getty Images

A destroyed Syrian forces tank stands in street in Atareb in the province of Aleppo on Monday. Most of Atareb's residents fled the town due to heavy fighting between Syrian forces and rebels.

One interesting aspect of this is that the U.N. has now stopped giving casualty figures, it has kind of been stuck for quite a long time at around 10,000. Well, it is way way over that.

More about ITV News' Bill Neely

Activists appear to have some grounding in fact and are coming up with about 18,600 civilians and rebels killed. The deputy foreign minister told me in May that there were more than 6,000 pro-regime dead. That takes you straight away to 25,000. Hillary Clinton said a few days ago it was 700 in the past week. I just looked at the activists figures and it looks about 100 a day now.

This is now the longest of the Arab revolutions by a long way, it is bigger than Libya, Egypt and Tunisia put together.

Syria's pro-government television station has been attacked. Seven people were killed. It is one of the boldest attacks yet on a symbol of that regime as rebel forces step up the fighting around the capital Damascus. ITV's Bill Neely reports.

And the U.N. keeps warning that if we're not careful this will become a catastrophe. I think if it's 100 a day -- you are talking war, you are talking catastrophe.

Photos: A glimpse at the escalating conflict in Syria

And you can talk about talks between the opposition and Assad and a transitional government by mutual consent, and frankly it sounds to the people here on both sides like so much "blah blah blah." In fact, it probably sounds like "blab blah blah" to the citizens of the U.S. and Britain and France as well. But it is it is a [Band-Aid] by embarrassed governments while in reality on the ground there are two sides who are gunning for each other quite literally.

Q: What can the West do?

A: I just came from the U.N. in Damascus and there are dozens of white U.N. Land Rovers lined up there. They are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

It does give a very bad impression of a world that is completely impotent, and secondly of a world that isn't even trying because the U.N. are just sitting in their hotel doing nothing.

UN suspends Syria monitoring due to rising violence

Q: What did you think of the recent Human Rights Watch report on widespread torture in Syria, were you surprised?

A bomb targeting Syria's highest court has exploded in Damascus. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

A: There was a large element of "duh!" when that report came out. You just thought, "Well, what do you expect, this has been a brutal regime for a very long time."

Yes, it's terrible but I don’t think it told us anything new. Obviously, Human Rights Watch are trying to get the U.N. to refer Syria to the [International Criminal Court], they're building the evidence up block by block.

Rights group: Syria's 20 torture methods

Q: Is the risk that Syria could implode?

A: The distinction is that Libya imploded, and the problem with Syria is that it could explode. Someone once said the Middle East is like a series of detonators all strung together. When Syria goes off Lebanon will, Iraq might, Iran, Syria's closest, friend might. And Israel may get tempted.

Shaam News Network / AFP - Getty Images

A handout image released by the opposition's Shaam News Network shows an anti-regime demonstrator holding a banner during a protest in Kfar Sousa on July 2. The Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) pulled out of an opposition conference in Cairo, citing political "disputes," a statement said on July 3.

Q: So you don't see much sign of the Assad government losing?

A: Not much sign of them stopping the bombardment of Homs and Douma because, if that’s what they feel they have to do to crush the revolution than that’s what they’ll do. They’ve made that absolutely clear. You read the official Syrian news agency and the word "crush" appears many many times. 

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