Syria slowly inches towards civil war

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Homs

Media caption,
The BBC's Paul Wood was smuggled into Homs were he met military defectors

"They're asking for RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) in al Bayadah," said the young fighter, naming another district in Homs.

"Assad's armoured vehicles are coming and they have nothing to stop them."

"Give them five or six of ours. God willing we will find some more," replied the man in charge, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

This conversation took place in the Bab Amr quarter of Homs.

The man giving the order for the RPGs to be sent had an M-16 automatic rifle, complete with sniper sight. The weapon did not have a scratch on it. It was brand new, just smuggled from Lebanon, they said.

We had entered Syria the same way the M-16 had, from Lebanon, with men running guns to what is a growing insurgency.

Avoiding patrols

Passage was arranged for us by the Free Syrian Army, or just "Free Army" as it calls itself, a force comprised of defectors from the government forces.

Image caption,
At least 3,500 people have been killed since protests broke out in March

Casualties come out the same way that guns go in. As we set off in fading light from a Lebanese farmhouse, an injured man was brought in and set down, semi-conscious and moaning.

A doctor examined two bullet wounds.

"Fifty-fifty," said the doctor about the man's chances. "Probably less than that."

He had lost a lot of blood in the hours it had taken to carry him across the border.

But even that terrible, jolting, uncertain journey was better than risking arrest at a Syrian government hospital.

We - myself and cameraman Fred Scott - crossed the unmarked border into Syria with the smugglers just before midnight.

The Syrian Army has been laying mines to try to stop this traffic. So far, they have not been successful.

Creeping through orchards and over farmland, the men tried to avoid Syrian patrols.

Hours earlier, in the same place, another smuggler had been caught after being surprised by Syrian soldiers.

We had heard shooting as he tried to run away.

Each man carried two of three rifles for the fighters inside.

Fuelled by demand in Syria, the price for a black market Kalashnikov has gone up to $1,200 (£770) in Lebanon.

They were not paid smugglers, though, but supporters of the revolution.

"The regime has had us under siege for 40 years," said Huda, who left his job as a painter and decorator in Lebanon to help the Free Army. "We have been starving for 40 years."

'Constant fear'

Image caption,
Unrest in Syria has sent demand for weapons soaring

With remarkable efficiency, we were passed along a chain of smugglers, activists, and fighters, each group taking responsibility for a small section of our journey.

We were driven on back roads, slipping around checkpoints, until we reached the outskirts of the city of Homs, the main centre of opposition to the regime.

There we were met by a group of activists taking medicines and dressings to an underground field hospital.

The Syrian government had ringed Homs with checkpoints and observation posts, they told us.

The troops would open fire if we were spotted. Everyone ran as we crossed a ditch, and then a main road, into Homs.

There was an atmosphere of siege, tension and constant fear in Bab Amr.

The area is hemmed in by army and police posts, armoured vehicles sitting on the major road junctions. There was often gunfire. We couldn't see who was shooting but people said checkpoints often fired at people going by.

Late one afternoon, a six-year-old boy was shot dead as he played on his front door step.

We joined the family for prayers in the mosque, men standing silently over the body, tears streaming down their faces.

They were in no doubt that a government sniper had done this.

The father explained apologetically that he could not be interviewed on camera because he would be arrested.

'Heard screams'

Members of Free Army stood guard on street corners with heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.

"Once if the Mukhabarat (the secret police) wanted to arrest you, they'd send a couple of guys on a motorbike," said the man with the M-16, one of those leading the struggle in Bab Amr.

"Now they would have to send a thousand soldiers."

But the security forces have come into Bab Amr many times before.

They have armoured vehicles against the machine guns and RPGs of the Free Army.

Still, all the members of the Free Army we met were cheerfully confident. Their numbers are growing.

Late one night, we watched tracer fire arcing back and forth over the buildings of Bab Amr for more than an hour.

"There's a defection going on," one of our hosts told us. A heavy machine was still clattering away when five soldiers arrived in the pitch black.

A sixth had not made it. "We heard him screaming," said Mahmoud Ali, one of the defecting soldiers, "but we couldn't go back. There were too many troops pouring in."

They had fought their way out of their base, running under fire to reach Bab Amr. Now, people were coming out into the street to embrace them.

Fresh from their flight, rapidly expelling plumes of breath into the night air, they explained why they had changed sides.

Their officers had told them they would be coming to Homs to fight "terrorists" but earlier that day they were ordered to fire on unarmed protesters in the streets of Homs.

"They gave us the order to shoot on the demonstrators," said Ahmed Daleti, "so we said 'No,' these people are peaceful. They just want freedom. We are all one people, one blood - we couldn't just shoot them."

Army post attack

They were tired and a little muted because of the loss of their comrade.

But, lit by the car headlight, they did a little dance for our camera. Raising their Kalashnikovs over their heads, they chanted. "God Bless the Free Army."

Image caption,
The restive province of Homs is heavily patrolled by the Syrian army

Time and again we met fighters who told the same story about being ordered to fire on protesters - and choosing instead to desert. While we were in Syria, we saw what seemed to be a small but steady stream of defectors.

Nevertheless, a whole unit has yet to change sides.

The Free Army leadership say they need outside help from the West to bring that about.

Lieutenant Waleed al Abdullah, one of the Free Army leaders in Homs, despite his junior rank, said that the regime would quickly crumble if there was a No Fly Zone in Syria, just like the one Nato imposed over Libya.

"Seventy per cent of the army are ready to defect," he told me, "whole brigades with their officers; even the Special Forces. But no battalion dares to move even 10m because they fear the Syrian air force will attack."

But help is not on the way - and so everyday the conflict is deepening.

On the way out of Syria we stayed with a group of about a dozen Free Army fighters.

Sitting crossed-legged on the floor, weapons leant on the wall, they debated whether to attack a Syrian Army post. No said one; after all, we were all once conscripts. We should attack only the secret police, said another.

In the end, they did attack, in the early hours of the morning assaulting the post with heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. They killed two soldiers and wounded two more, they said.

There will be much more of this.

Slowly, the struggle for democracy in Syria is being transformed, the country inching towards civil war.