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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> I drove from Beirut to Damascus. During the day there are Syrian Army checkpoints, and the road is pretty clear. When you get into Damascus, you hear shellfire from the suburb of Daraya, which is less than a mile away from the main highway leading between Beirut and Damascus.
When I came in, there was an aircraft literally dropping a bomb in the suburb of Daraya, which is held by rebels. At one point I flew to Latakia, on the coast, and from Latakia I drove north right up to the Syrian government army's front line. The Syrian government army allowed me to go into their frontline positions.
What impression did you get from the Syrian government soldiers?
Robert Fisk: I found them a very ruthless, tough, but apparently pretty determined army. They clearly took no prisoners. They talked at one point about killing up to 700 terrorists, as they call the rebels. A general showed me a video on his phone of dead rebels with beards, and twice in the video a military boot appears and crushes the faces of the dead men.
Many of the soldiers I spoke to had been wounded. So they are tough, ruthless men on the government side, and we know the same applies to the rebels. And both sides, as we are well aware, have committed human rights abuses and war crimes. At the moment – but this does not necessarily mean it will last – the government forces in Syria are clearly taking territory from the rebels.
There are continual discussions about whether chemical weapons are being used in Syria.
Robert Fisk: We know that chemical weapons exist in Syria in the hands of the government, but there is no actual 100-percent proof that they have been used. The rebels say they have been used against civilians by Assad's forces, the Assad government says the rebels have used them. The United Nations has one report saying that rebels have used them, but there is no proof that Assad did. I put this to a senior military officer in Damascus, and he said, "Why would we use chemical weapons? We've got MIG-29s that drop bombs and cause far more damage."
In Washington, there is talk about arming the rebels and imposing a no-fly zone. What do you make of such ideas?
Robert Fisk: This has been going for two and a half years. I think the Americans think that as long as they keep talking, no one will point out that they're not actually doing anything. The problem now for the West is that the rebels they want to support are the Free Syrian Army, allegedly all defectors from the Syrian government army. They do not want to support the Islamist rebels with links to al Qaeda. But once the weapons cross the border, I don't think you can be pick-and-choosy about where they go.
So you've got this rather odd situation where we in the West are funnelling money, support and weapons to rebels who include al Qaeda, whereas in Mali, we're trying to kill all the al Qaeda people.
What role is Iran playing in this conflict?
Robert Fisk: The war is not about Syria, it's about Iran. And the intention of the West is to effectively destroy Iran's only Arab ally. And for the Iranians it's about keeping their only Arab ally. We know that the Iranian government has given advice, but these are very, very small token forces, compared to the propaganda, which is that thousands and thousands of Iranians are arriving en masse. I did not see any Iranian soldiers on any front line.
Media reports say that Russia intends to supply weapons to the Syrian government.