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Myth vs. truth in the Syrian conflict

Dozens are reported dead in Syria where opposition forces are fighting to maintain control of Syria's commercial capital and biggest city. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

News Analysis

NORTHERN SYRIA – The rebels call this Free Syria. 

I am writing from a village that was occupied by Syrian soldiers four hours ago – the tracks of retreating tanks are freshly pressed into the pavement.

Grape vines hang in the small garden of the two-room stone house I’m in.  There’s no electricity, but there is fresh water from rural wells.  Bullet holes – some as small as grapes, others big as oranges – pierce the house’s walls. 

Still, the people in this village are celebrating.

“Free Syrian army! God protect them!” they shout, index and middle fingers splayed into a “v” for victory. 

The 200 Syrian troops who’d been shelling this village of 8,000 olive and walnut farmers withdrew under fire Wednesday night.  Women and children who had been hiding in other villages within walking distance stream in, loaded with vegetables and yogurt. 

The defense minister, his deputy and a vice president were all killed in the blast but it is unclear if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was nearby. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

The returning families sift through the debris of their homes.  The villagers find that many houses were burned by Syrian troops.  The Syrian army appears to have carried out a deliberate scorched-earth campaign here. 

The troops burned every home with a son, son-in-law or even cousin among the rebels, residents tell us.  There can be little doubt that this is government policy (and what appears to be a war crime) because the same thing has happening in every village we’ve visited. 

A man who returned to this village had a leg cut off under torture by Syrian forces.  He’s 74 years old.

Another man who escaped Damascus five days ago says the fighting in the capital is now so bad that President Bashar Assad isn’t sending ground forces into rebel neighborhoods anymore and is only shelling them from afar.  He doesn’t want to send foot patrols out of fear the troops will defect, people say.

The regime is on the ropes.  

Total war: Syria sends armored column to Aleppo

The Assad goverment is concentrating its firepower on big cities like Damascus and Aleppo.  Government troops left this village last night to join the attack on Aleppo.  But the rebels, and Syria, need urgent help to prevent huge losses of life, both among fighters and civilians – Sunni, Allawite and Christian.

Many myths circulate in Washington and in the media about the Syrian opposition and the fighting in this country.   From what I’ve seen traveling with the rebels, many of the commonly accepted ‘truths’ seem to be incorrect.  After all, the first casualty of war is the truth.

After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

Myth: The rebels are getting weapons and money from abroad and will soon finish off Bashar’s army on their own. 

View from the ground: The rebels are fighting with almost nothing.  I was with a rebel commander yesterday who has 48 men.  Only 15 of his fighters have any weapons.  He has almost no ammunition.  He has one anti-aircraft gun, but not a single bullet for it. 

The rebels don’t have enough gasoline to put in their vehicles.  The gas they can find costs the equivalent of $8 a gallon.  Food is plentiful, and so is water.  But weapons and ammunition are in desperately short supply.  Another unit I have seen is armed with homemade bombs that they try to fire from cardboard tubes.  

The rebels are now starting to get Motorola radios.  They are new and coming from Turkey.  Washington has recently said it will help private non-lethal aid, including communications equipment.  But the radios are of little use.  Communications have never been the rebels’ main problem.  In fact, the rebels coordinate and communicate effectively already.  They use  both the new Motorola radios and local Syrian cellphones.  The cellphones can be monitored by Syrian intelligence, but the rebels’ strategy has been to overwhelm the Syrian government’s ability to listen. 

Syrian villagers are hoping to their normal lives after what looks like Syrian government policy to collectively punish the rebels and their families by making them homeless. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Because the rebels – commanders and foot soldiers – all use cellphones and landlines, there are tens or thousands of conversations going on at any one time.  The rebels speak vaguely and in primitive codes.  It seems unlikely that Syrian forces are able to keep track of such a high volume of calls and effectively act on them.  The rebels do appreciate the radios and use them, but they are a secondary priority. 

Syria: What you need to know about the crisis from the CFR.org

What the rebels say they truly need are arms that can pierce Syrian armored vehicles.  They need 12.7 anti-aircraft ammunition.  They say they need 14.5 ‘doshka’ rounds.   They need armor penetrating RPGS.  They need 60mm and 120mm mortars.  They need 7.62 rounds.  These are what commanders ask for whenever I meet them.  These are what every rebel wants.

Myth: The rebels are disorganized, have no leaders and are rife with infighting.

View from the ground: The rebels have no central leadership.  They do not have a single commander.  The rebels generally do not recognize the leaders of the Syrian opposition in exile in Turkey and Europe.  But on the ground here in Syria the rebels are well organized.   Their structure is more organic than hierarchical, less like a pyramid than a bungle of grapes, with individual cells joined together by a common cause.  The rebel cells coordinate well with each other.  Since weapons are in such short supply, all rebel military operations are collective efforts.  In the town where I am, there are no fewer than five different rebel commands.  They respect each other.  They trade weapons and fighters.  Some units are more Islamic in their politics, others are secular.  The differences in politics do not prevent their coordination.

Photo Blog: Who are the Syrian rebels?

Myth: The rebels are al-Qaida or at least infiltrated by al-Qaida.

View from the ground:  We have not seen evidence of a large al-Qaida presence.  This is not an al-Qaida fight.  In the last 24 hours we have met three rebel commanders.  One was an air-conditioner repairman before the war.  Another was a tomato and zucchini farmer.  The third grew grain and lentils.  One of the commanders considers himself an Islamist.  The other two are more secular. 

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

In total, the three commanders control about 1,500 men.  Not one of the commanders supports al-Qaida, nor have any of the dozens rebels have we have met.  There were reports that al-Qaida fighters had recently taken over the Baab al-Howa border crossing between Syria and Turkey.  There was a video that showed rebels carrying a suspicious-looking all black flag, similar to ones favored by al-Qaida.  We spoke with the rebel leader who carried the flag.  He said he has nothing to do with al-Qaida and the flag was an Islamic one.

Syrian forces launch air attacks on largest city

Al-Qaida’s presence may grow, however, without a quick end to this conflict.  The rebels need help.  Their men are dying.  Their homes are being burned.  As time goes on, the temptation to welcome help – even if offered from al-Qaida –will grow.  We have heard reports of foreign fighters coming to Syrian from Algeria and Saudi Arabia.  We have heard reports that al-Qaida is offering some rebel commanders money.  The longer this drags on, the more dangerous it will get.

Myth: The rebels want a NATO intervention

View from the ground: The rebels do not want American or European soldiers in Syria.  Many rebels do not specifically even want a no-fly-zone, although I suspect many would welcome it.  Mostly, they just want access to weapons. 

Myth: After Assad is toppled there will be ethnic cleansing of Allawite (a secretive Shiite sect) civilians by the Sunni majority

View from the ground: Syrians don’t want ethnic violence, but some may happen.  It’s already happening.  There have already been ethnically motivated massacres.  The longer the war continues the worse this will become.  Syria is not, however, Iraq. 

There are no U.S. troops in Syria trying to organize elections.  The U.S. presence and American missteps made ethnic violence in Iraq far worse than it would have been otherwise after Saddam Saddam Hussein's fall.  The Syrians are better suited to sort out their internal divisions than anyone else. 

A first? Helicopter gunships bombard Syrian capital

Allawites comprise about 10 percent of Syria’s 23 million people.  They are the government’s favored sect.  The Assad family is Allawite.  If Assad falls, there may be vendetta killings of some Allawites.  More than 17,000 Syrians have already been killed, which means 17,000 angry families.  It will be difficult to contain all that rage.  The longer the conflict continues, however, the more vengeance there will be.  If there are more large-scale massacres – if Aleppo is reduced to a smoldering pile like Homs – the aftermath could be much worse. 

The latest massacre began with a military bombardment of the village of Tremsi. After the heavy artillery and shelling, villagers said pro-government militia men swept in to kill at close range. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

But Syrians I have spoken to say they do not want a civil war.  They do not want to drive Allawites from the country.  Mostly, they want justice.  The rebels know exactly who they are looking for.  They have the names of Syrian government officers and militiamen responsible for massacres and torture.  They want to bring them to justice, but not to perpetrate more atrocities.  Syria needs help organizing a justice system to deal with the popular demands for retribution after the regime collapses. 

The conflict in Syria seems to be in its final stages, but how long this stage will last depends largely on what happens in the coming days and weeks and the amount of support the rebels receive. 

All indications are that Assad is going to fall.  But how many more Syrians need to go with him?

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