Middle East

'Time to end Syrian regime,' say rebels near Damascus

File photo of Free Syrian Army fighter
Image caption The Free Syrian Army fighters are scenting victory

The BBC's Paul Wood accompanied rebel fighters as they slipped into Syria from neighbouring Lebanon, to the rebel-held town of Zabadani close to the capital, Damascus.

A line of smugglers and fighters moves slowly but steadily up the side of a mountain in the dark.

It is steep - our legs are aching, our lungs burning - and there are three more days of this.

But it is the only illicit route into Syria from Lebanon at the moment. The Syrian regime, fighting for its life, has managed to close all the others.

Spread out below us are the bright lights of a Lebanese town. The sound of Ramadan fireworks and music carries up to the top of the high ground and then fades as we cross a ridge, replaced by the distant rumble of artillery from Syria.

"Tabaan? Tired?" asks one of the fighters.

"No, everything's fine," I lie, dripping with sweat and fighting waves of nausea.

They are used to this climb. We are not.

"We can't stop on the next section and we mustn't make a sound," says the leader of the group.

"There is an army post. It has dogs. If they shoot, just keep going."

The fighters are poorly equipped with an assortment of guns and only a little ammunition.

One of them is nicknamed Abu Sickle - "father of the sickle" - because, when he joined the Free Syrian Army and for four months afterwards, that was the only weapon he had. He owned a mobile phone store before the uprising.

There is also Yaman, an 18-year-old who had been studying computer science in Jordan, where his parents had sent him for safety and where they no doubt happily believe he remains.

Thin, bespectacled, he climbs over the rocks with his laptop in a small attache case in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other.

Yaman decided he could not wait any longer to join the revolution last week when the Free Syrian Army launched an offensive in the capital, Damascus, assassinating the defence minister and his deputy, who is also President Assad's brother-in-law.

Like everyone else in the group trekking over the mountain, he believes the end is near.

Troop pullout

At one stage in the journey, our packs are loaded onto mules, their vocal chords cut so their braying would not alert the soldiers.

But the climb down is nearly vertical in places and so we leave the mules behind.

Image caption Rebels say Damascus authorities are hitting civilians in retaliation for last week's assassinations

Some time later, we arrive in the town of Zabadani, walking into the orchards on the outskirts where most of the rebel fighters are hiding out.

It is 3am. There are white flashes and booms. Zabadani is under artillery attack.

It sits in the bowl of a valley, with Syrian tanks and heavy weapons on the slope of the hill looking down. They fire at will.

The next morning, the shelling having died down, a couple of fighters drive us around town.

They point out shell holes in the town's two Christian churches and a mosque which has been badly damaged.

One of the fighters, Abu Ali, says that what happened in Damascus was "'a major blow to the regime, but they took it out on the civilians".

People tell us the shelling has definitely got much worse over the past few days - but also that there are far fewer government troops around.

They believe they are being withdrawn from places like this to defend the capital. The rebels in Zabadani say the army no longer attacks them with soldiers. Only shells.

'Just shelling'

There are, in fact, two rival armed groups here.

One is Salafi, Islamists fighting for God as much as for democracy. In the short term, both of the rival armed groups in this town are trying to achieve the same thing, the overthrow of the regime.

"Before [last week's events in] Damascus, the regime was everywhere. It could go where it wanted," said Ahmad, a 24-year-old lawyer before the revolution, now a fighter with the Islamist group in Zabadani.

"But now the regime are weak. The only soldiers it has around towns like this are those manning tanks and artillery. It's all just shelling, now, wherever you go. We no longer see crackdowns and arrest."

He continues: "Their soldiers are mercenaries. They only fight from a distance. Of course, we have few resources. So the regime is holding on."

His comrade, Arif Matar, a lieutenant in the Syrian Army before he defected, added: "We are fighting for a cause, they are not. We know what we are fighting for. That's the difference."

The rebels are certainly determined. But they also have little more than rifles while the regime has the heavy weapons. That much has not changed since last week.

Abu Ala, head of the revolutionary council in Zabadani, is convinced that it is morale, not material, that will determine the outcome of this conflict.

"The regime used to depend on the secret police, on terror," he says.

"Now, that power is broken; now, it depends on the military, but the military is growing weaker. We are weeks away from the end. Maybe days."

That has been said to me many times over the past year. As I write this, government tanks are once again pounding the rebels on the fringes of Zabadani, a pall of white smoke hanging over the orchards.

It may look like stalemate, but the rebels say their offensive is not over.

They say men from Zabadani are preparing to join a final push on the capital. It is there they believe that the uprising will succeed or fail.