#Syria accused of blocking BBC broadcasts
The BBC said on its broadcasts were being disrupted in the Middle East and Europe. Broadcasters including CNN and Voice of America using the Eutelsat were suffering widespread disruption.
Sources within broadcasting companies said Syria appeared to have sought Iranian assistance to disrupt the signal as part of an information war against the West.
Syria has accused Western and Arab television stations of fanning the flames of its civil war with “distortions and lies” about the government’s response to popular protests. Iran is an ally of the Damascus regime that stands accused of providing assistance to Syrian crackdown.
The satellite operator said it had identified the source of the attacks. “The deliberate and intermittent interference that began earlier this week is coming from Syria,” it said.
“The BBC, together with a number of other broadcasters, is experiencing deliberate, intermittent interference to its transmissions to audiences in Europe and the Middle East,” it said in a statement. “Deliberate interference such as the jamming of transmissions is a blatant violation of international regulations concerning the use of satellites and we strongly condemn any practice designed to disrupt audiences.”
Iran has attracted international condemnation for jamming radio and television programming in the Middle East and eastern Europe in violation of international telecommunications regulations.
The Foreign Office said it was working with the broadcasters to address the disruptions. “Such deliberate interference is illegal and is contrary to the international regulations governing satellite transmissions. We will work with our European partners, satellite companies and affected broadcasters to follow up on these reports,” a spokesman said.
The jamming affects satellite transponders that broadcasts across the Mediterrean.
Alistair Burt, a Foreign Office minister, has condemned the Iranian role in blocking transmissions as part of its crackdown on dissent. “Such deplorable tactics illustrate again the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, and the desperation of the Iranian regime to silence any independent voices,” he said in February.
#Syria, Terror suspects probed over kidnap of UK photographer
Two Britons arrested at Heathrow Airport over alleged terrorism offences are to be questioned about the kidnap of a British photographer in Syria, the Metropolitan Police has said.
The man and woman, both aged 26, were arrested at 20:30 BST on Tuesday after their flight landed at the airport.
They were held on suspicion of travelling to Syria in support of alleged terrorist activity.
Police said their possible involvement in the abduction was a line of inquiry.
British photographer John Cantlie - who had done work for the Sunday Times - and Dutch journalist Jeroen Oerlemans were taken hostage by Islamist militants in Syria for week in July.
After the ordeal, Mr Cantlie said one captor had claimed to be an NHS doctor.
Scotland Yard said the pair arrested at Heathrow on Wednesday had flown into the UK from Egypt. It confirmed both were of British nationality and had been arrested over allegations of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
Joining jihadist groups
Officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism Command took the pair to a central London police station where they remain in custody.
Two addresses in east London are being searched under the Terrorism Act in connection with police inquiries, the Met said.
Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking to the BBC, said the UK government was aware of Britons going to Syria to fight.
“That’s not something we recommend, and we do not want British people taking part in violent situations anywhere in the world,” he said.
Dozens of people are thought to have travelled from Britain to Syria to fight in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The BBC’s defence correspondent, Frank Gardner, said some of those are believed to have made such trips have joined jihadist groups.
However, he said the Syrian conflict had attracted relatively low numbers of Britons travelling for jihadist reasons compared to previous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And there is no evidence that those leaving Britain to fight in Syria have any Syrian family connections, our correspondent said.
According to activists, more than 30,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March last year. The UN estimates that at least 20,000 have died.
Jihadists - those committed to establishing an Islamic state by violent means - have been seen on the battlefield in Syria.
Official: Iran would take action if US attacked #Syria
Iran would take action if the United States were to carry out an act of “stupidity” and attack Syria, an Iranian military official was quoted as saying on Saturday, but the comments later disappeared from the state-linked agency website.
Iran has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar Assad in his bid to suppress an uprising which both Tehran and Damascus see as a proxy war by Israel and Western states to extend their influence in the Middle East.
“If America were to attack Syria, Iran along with Syria’s allies will take action, which would amount to a fiasco for America,” Mohammad Ali Assoudi, the deputy for culture and propaganda of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was quoted as saying.
Assoudi’s comments were first carried by the government-linked news agency Young Journalists’ Club but were later apparently taken down from the group’s website. The comments were picked up by Iranian news sites including Iran’s Jam-e Jam newspaper and the BBC’s Persian-language site.
#Syria conflict: ‘Scores of bodies found’ near Damascus
Government forces launched an assault on Darayya on Saturday after days of bombardment
Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near the capital, Damascus, accusing government troops of a “massacre”.
Many of those killed in the town of Darayya were victims of execution-style killings, the activists said.
According to unconfirmed reports, 200 bodies were discovered in houses and basement shelters.
Without commenting on the activists’ claim, Syrian state TV said Darayya was being “cleansed of terrorist remnants”.
The UK said that if the reports were confirmed, the killings would “be an atrocity on a new scale”.
Meanwhile, Syrian Vice-President Farouq al-Shara has greeted an Iranian delegation in Damascus, quashing weeks of speculation that he had defected to the opposition.
President Bashar al-Assad, who also met the Iranian delegation, said Syria would continue its current policy “whatever the cost” and accused Western nations of a regional conspiracy.
The forces of President Assad launched an assault on Darayya on Saturday, after days of heavy bombardment.
The BBC’s Barbara Plett in Beirut says the attack was part of a wider campaign to reclaim the southern outskirts of Damascus, where rebels have been regrouping since being driven out a month ago.
Activists on the ground later posted unverified video footage on the internet, which shows rows of bodies side by side in the Abu Auleiman al-Darani mosque.
The activists say that many of the victims had gunshot wounds to the head and chest and were killed during house-to-house raids by government troops.
“Assad’s army has committed a massacre in Darayya,” an opposition member told Reuters.
The activist added that most of the victims had been killed at close range, and some died from sniper fire.
The UK Foreign Office said it had opposition reports that “300 people, including women and children, were killed and that some were shot at close range”.
Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said that, if confirmed, the killings would require “unequivocal condemnation from the entire international community”.
Mr Burt added: “It would make [Saturday] the bloodiest day since the unrest in Syria began in March 2011, with over 400 killed across the country.”
The opposition Local Coordination Committees group put the death toll for Saturday at 440 across Syria.
(Vice-President Farouq al-Shara appeared on Sunday, ending speculation he had defected)
Another opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says 320 people were killed in Darayya over five days, not on Saturday alone.
The claims by the activists have not been independently verified because of restrictions placed on foreign media across Syria.
The official Syrian state news agency said: “Our heroic armed forces cleansed Darayya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town and scared them and sabotaged and destroyed public and private property.”
Meanwhile Vice-President Shara was seen entering his office for a meeting with an Iranian delegation, following weeks of rumours that he had defected.
State media said a “fake” email had been sent out saying Mr Shara had been sacked and that this was “completely wrong”.
After welcoming the Iranian team, President Assad accused some Western and regional countries of trying to “deviate Syria from its stance”.
State news agency Sana quoted him as saying: “Because Syria is the cornerstone, foreign powers are targeting it so their conspiracy succeeds across the entire region.”
Local activists say the type of mass killing reportedly carried out in Darayya, with dozens of bodies being discovered following government raids, has increased in recent months.
Human Rights Watch said it was not a new pattern, but was now happening in more areas and in greater numbers.
An earlier report from United Nations observers found that both sides had carried out massacres, but the Syrian army was responsible for a far greater number of deaths.
Fighting continued in other parts of Syria on Sunday, including in the second city of Aleppo, where fighter jets dropped bombs on rebel-held positions in what was described as the fiercest fighting there in the past week.
In a separate development, the head of the UN mission to Syria left the country after the mission had been wound up.
Senegalese Lt Gen Babacar Gaye joined a UN convoy to Lebanon on Saturday.
Last week, the UN decided against extending the mission, which was originally part of a six-point peace plan for Syria.
However, the ceasefire mandated by the plan never took hold and rising violence forced the UN monitors to be confined to their hotels since June.
(Heavy fighting is continuing in Aleppo in the north)
#Syria conflict: BBC’s Paul Wood
meets teens turned rebels
Please click on link to view video story! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19146029#TWEET186328
The BBC’s Paul Wood and cameraman Fred Scott have been with rebel forces on the outskirts of Damascus where reporting is severely restricted.
They heard the stories of teenagers who have become the unlikely face of Syria’s frontline.
This is their exclusive report for the BBC.
‘Expectations of big push’ by government forces in Aleppo, #Syria
5 August 2012 Last updated at 05:19 ET
Military sources in Syria say 20,000 troops are now massed in and around the city of Aleppo, where the army is fighting to drive out rebel forces.
Fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and artillery are already bombarding rebel positions, but the rebels are said to be well dug in.
In Damascus, the army says it has retaken the last rebel stronghold.
The BBC’s Jim Muir reports from Beirut. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19134736
#Syria conflict: Photographer John Cantlie ‘held by UK jihadists’
A British photojournalist who was kidnapped and wounded by Islamist militants in northern Syria has said up to 15 of his captors were from the UK.
John Cantlie and Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans were held at a camp for a week in July.
Mr Cantlie was blindfolded but said some of his captors were “from the UK”.
Members of the Free Syrian Army group, which is part of the opposition trying to oust Bashar al-Assad, helped the two photographers to escape.
But both were wounded in a “shooting gallery” as their thwarted captors fired after the fleeing men.
The kidnapping took place amid the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Heavy fighting is continuing in the country’s second city, Aleppo, amid concerns that the army will launch a full-scale assault within days.
Activists say more than 20,000 people - mostly civilians - have died in 17 months of unrest.
Jihadists - those committed to establishing an Islamic state by violent means - have started to be seen on the battlefield in Syria.
The FSA is said to be scrutinising jihadists in Syria very closely.
They are considered to be “a real threat after the Assad regime falls”, a senior FSA officer told the BBC.
John Cantlie Photojournalist
I think these are disenchanted young men from the UK who are now unified under this jihadist banner”
Mr Cantlie told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme he and his colleague were regularly threatened with death.
“When you’re held captive, you’re blindfolded and you have a guy sticking a gun at your head, it’s very real,” he said.
“It was inferred that we would meet our god. We had sowed the seeds of our own destruction. We would be shot or beheaded.
“At one point they even started sharpening knives for a beheading. It was pretty frightening.”
The photojournalist said he entered Syria across the border with Turkey, using the same route and guide that he had earlier in the year.
But on this occasion he and his companions passed through a camp inhabited by Islamic jihadists who he said were not from Syria.
“They were from anywhere but Syria,” he told the BBC.
“They were from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the UK and Chechnya. A real mix.”
Jihadist ‘mixed bunch’
He said there were “between 10 and 15 young jihadists from the UK” who he described as being “a mixed bunch”.
Some seemed “shocked at what had happened” and may have left the camp, arguing that it was not what they had come for.
Other British captors were described by him as being “vindictive”.
The photojournalist said: “I think these are disenchanted young men from the UK who are now unified under this jihadist banner. I think they took out their angst on us.”
He and his Dutch colleague escaped when four members of the FSA intervened and gave the photographers an opportunity to flee the camp.
The pair ran amidst a hail of bullets which he likened to “a shooting gallery”. Both were shot.
Mr Cantlie was shot in the arm and a bullet passed through Mr Oerlemans’s thigh.
#Syria, Your questions to Ian Pannell?
After his recent reporting trip to the front line in Syria, BBC News correspondent Ian Pannell answered your questions about the situation there and what it’s like to report in such demanding conditions in a live Twitter Q&A.
This is an edited version of the session:
Question from @alexvlf1m: What do you think has been the biggest difficulty in reporting information from Syria?
Ian answers: Two main problems: 1) the danger 2) being able to hear both sides of the story
Jonah in US emails: What are the daily conditions for you? How do you sleep and eat? How long in action before you get a break?
Ian answers: It was rough living, with very little sleep. We were constantly on the move and there were food and water shortages. It was a ten-day trip, my fifth trip in the last year.
@ShivamLM asks: How hard was it to earn the trust of pro- and anti-government protesters? And is the situation recoverable?
Ian answers: The government refused visas for our team. So I was unable to hear pro-Assad voices, but those voices have appeared elsewhere on the BBC. It has taken a lot of time and effort to earn the full trust of anti-government forces, but protesters have been very open to foreign media.
A question from @makiwa: Please confirm how long Britain and the USA have been arming the al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria?
Ian answers:There is lots of concern that al-Qaeda is in Syria. In five trips into the country, and having seen thousands of Free Syrian Army (FSA) members, I’ve met no al-Qaeda. But small numbers are likely to be there.
There are many reports of foreign jihadis inside Syria, but I have seen no evidence on the ground. They probably do exist, but are likely to be only small number.
The US provides help to oust Assad, but not weapons. Some doubt this, but there is no proof otherwise.
A question from @SemraG: Why don’t we get much media coverage about what’s happening with Kurds in Syria?
Ian responds: This is something the team have discussed at length. It may sound strange, but there are security reasons for not taking a helmet.
@BarrieTweet asks: Is the trouble spreading or is it confined to sections of the country?
Ian answers: The trouble has been spreading since this began. There are very few areas now unaffected, but there are pockets that still seem “normal”.
@Mr_Izop asks: Who is fighting Assad - the FSA or disparate uncontrolled groups?
Ian tweets: The FSA is a loose coalition of regional fighters who are increasingly unified. Other smaller groups are also present.
Ivan in Moscow emails: What do Syrians think about Russians? Do they understand that a lot of Russians support them?
Anti-government forces and citizens are increasingly anti-Russian and do not distinguish between the Russian government and people.
As far as we know, those who are pro-Assad are grateful to Russia for what they see as critical support in the face of western and Arab “hostility”.
Brian Mc posts on the BBC News Facebook page: If the rebels succeed is a new Syria more likely to be a secular state?
Ian answers: Syria has been a secular state for over 40 years. Some fear that is now threatened. Most FSA I’ve met say they want a non-religious government that “reflects the will of the people”.
Jamie Mayers asks via Google+: From what you have witnessed, is there any doubt that Assad’s regime is committing crimes against his own people?
Ian responds: No. I have also seen what appears to be FSA abuse of prisoners and there are reports of FSA killings, but on a far smaller scale.
Lily in Australia emails: What is the role of women in rebel forces? Are there any female combatants?
Ian answers: There is only a handful of women fighters reported. But women are very active in opposition. It is a very traditional society and they and children are sent to safety.
@juliamacfarlane asks: Was there anything positive you saw on your trip that gave you reason to hope for Syria?
Ian tweets: Anything positive? The human capacity to endure great suffering and yet believe that one day Syria will be at peace.
One day, the death and bloodshed will be over and Syria will emerge a united country living in peace.
Sadly, that’s it. Thanks for all questions, sorry I couldn’t get to them all.
For more tweets from Ian Pannell you can follow his Twitter accoun
Every revolution involves abusive rebels and dubious backers. #Syria’s opposition deserves qualified support
It’s rare that foreign policy issues unite left and right, but there’s an interesting alliance emerging on the subject of Syria.
John Bradley, in the Daily Mail, fumed that “the anti-Assad opposition … are masters of manipulative propaganda aimed at gullible Western politicians, broadcasters and protest groups”. The Guardian ran a frothing-at-the-mouth piece portraying the Syrian opposition as neo-con stooges of the Bilderberg group. I was particularly struck by a claim made by security analyst Charles Shoebridge, that a BBC report “shows Syria rebel fighters bringing chaos, terror, death, and [the] fear of Islamist extremism to Aleppo”.
All of these people have a point, even if – in the case of the Guardian – it’s buried deep in the gibberish. The rebels have made use of propaganda. The prominence of the exiled opposition has worried many Syrians. And Syrian rebels have committed abuses. But we need to keep this in perspective.
Do the rebels have non-violent alternatives to guerrilla war? No. Anyone who persists in thinking that peaceful protest is a viable means of change should try holding up an anti-Assad poster around central Damascus (and, let us be clear: regime violence pre-dates the arming of the opposition, it is not a response to it).
Have outsiders hijacked Aleppo? No. Although the majority of fighters are from rural areas around the city, students from Aleppo University have also joined the Free Syrian Army. Several people who have spent time in Aleppo over the past few weeks have told me that the general population in the city, apart from some wealthier segments, is not especially resentful.
Should the rebels have fought on different terrain, to insulate civilians? Yes. But they did exactly that: ”We attacked them in rural areas. We tried to avoid fighting close to civilian populations”. When rebels were attacked in the suburbs of Damascus, they engaged in tactical withdrawals. Unfortunately, neither peaceful protesters nor armed rebels get to choose the way the regime responds to their tactics.
Is it true that the Western media is only interested in one side of the story? Not really. On more than one occasion, the BBC (and other outlets) have prominently covered rebel abuses, including allegations of war crimes.
Just as in Libya, all of us who support Syrian rebels have a particular obligation to highlight and condemn such abuses, rather that pretend that they don’t exist, but these are simply not on the scale of regime actions. Rather than write off an entire national movement, we should think about ways to blacklist and punish abusive rebel individuals and units.
Finally, the greatest fallacy is that we face a choice between secular authoritarianism from the Assad regime, and sectarian theocracy from the rebels. It’s an interesting sort of secularism that draws on viciously violent, anti-Sunni sectarian militias to enforce its rule, and that sponsors Islamist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. And, if the cost of preserving this sham secularism is mass violence, then count me out. It’s curious that those who profess such concern for minorities in Syria seem to think that “torture on an industrial scale” is preferable to a post-Assad government.
As for the rebels, yes, I have consistently noted that we should be concerned about both illiberal Islamist influences and more extreme jihadist ones. But, as counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman observes, “the prevalence of jihadists within the Libyan uprising has often been exaggerated in American commentary”.
For a start, jihadists don’t have a foreign occupation to mobilise support, like they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s or Iraq more recently. Moreover, the jihadists’ counterparts in Libya – where the sceptics also issued these dark warnings – were trounced in largely free and fair elections. So was Qatar-backed Islamist commander Abdul Hakim Belhaj, whose party failed to win a single parliamentary seat. Of course we should be worried about despotic, sectarian Saudi Arabia pumping in arms – but Arab powers can’t simply hijack a revolution that easily.
If the presence of abusive rebels and dubious foreign backers was enough to annul the right to rebellion, then virtually every revolution in history would be deemed illegitimate. Large swathes of Syria’s opposition are fighting for a state that is more democratic and humane than that which stands today, and – even if they face steep odds – they deserve, at the very least, our qualified support.
BBC News - #Syria, Homs_ A scarred and divided city
#Syria conflict: Warplanes bomb Aleppo
24 July 2012 Last updated at 18:17 ET
Fighter jets have bombed eastern areas of Syria’s second city Aleppo, the attack is being seen as a significant escalation in the conflict.
It comes as the government attempts to take back districts of Syria’s commercial centre seized by rebels
The rebels launched an offensive against Aleppo at the weekend in an attempt to take the city from government forces
The BBC’s Ian Pannell joined a convoy to Aleppo.
PLEASE VISIT LINK FOR FEATURE VIDEO!
Jacques Beres is a 71-year-old surgeon and co-founder of the Medecins Sans Frontieres group. He has just returned from the besieged Syrian city of Homs where, in a makeshift clinic, he managed to treat dozens of people wounded during weeks of bombardment. He told the BBC News website what he saw.
“I spent 12 days in Homs, arriving via Lebanon. We planned the trip for several weeks. It was very dangerous to enter illegally so I made the journey with the help of a chain of intermediaries.
“One met me at the airport in Beirut. I landed in the evening and by 09:00 the next morning I was already in Syria. I had a rest at a farm and then progressed to Qusayr [three miles (4.8km) south-west of Homs], where I worked for a few days before making the journey into Homs.
“I was scared. It is only reasonable to have some fear. Bombs are never normal. I can’t really compare Homs to any other war zone I have worked in though - apart, perhaps, from Chechnya.
“Grozny is small and the town has a mixture of rural and urban areas. The houses in Homs are built in a similar way - there is no protection and, when they are hit, they collapse completely. Also, the ferocity of the attack and the repression are comparable.
“I was based in a makeshift operating theatre. Everyone is too scared to go to the state-run hospital - they are terrified of having a limb amputated, or of being kidnapped. Only the Syrian army soldiers go there now.
“It was just one operating theatre, in someone’s home. It was badly lit, the electricity was frequently cut. It was minimal, very basic. Marie Colvin came to visit us three days before she died.
“We did have running water but, as it was a private hospital, there was only water in some rooms - the bathroom and kitchen. There were no proper sterilisation facilities either - we just had to rinse our hands with alcohol and put them straight into our gloves.
“There was a Syrian team and a Syrian doctor who ran the hospital, who slept there and treated patients and kept everyone’s morale up. There were other surgeons who came and helped when they could.
“I operated on 90 people. We couldn’t help those who had been injured in the chest and the head, only those with wounds to the abdomen and below.
“The people there are convinced that they will win. They are very brave but they are also desperate at having been bombarded for so long. They think they have been abandoned.
“They are always watching television. The TV is always on, the news flows and they communicate via Facebook and Twitter. They know what is going on.
“I travelled there because it had to be done. It’s an emergency. It helps them a lot to see someone from abroad helping them. Plus, I’m very experienced in this field. You can gain a lot yourself from such an experience too - these people are immensely brave. They just want their freedom, they want to get rid of the tyrant. I’d like to return if I can.”
Homs attack: Rebels come under ‘relentless attack’ (Woods from BBC in Homs!) #Syria
Watch video here. The BBC’s Paul Wood is with rebel fighters near Homs
I am travelling with a group of rebel fighters who call themselves the Free Syrian Army.
They heard at about 03:00 that there had been a large bombardment of areas of Homs that are opposed to the regime.
From the fighters we have heard figures of 200 dead - and some numbers are even higher than that.
None of this can independently verified.
The scraps of information we are getting from inside Homs suggest that mortars and tank rounds were used in a pretty relentless bombardment of those areas of the city that have slipped from the regime’s grasp, principally the areas of Khalidya and Baba Amr.
The men started a “blood drive” in the villages around and they have been trying to get this blood into Homs. So far they have not been successful - they say that Homs is effectively cut off as the tanks and positions around it are shooting at anything that moves.
The Syrian government denies that any attack at all has taken place, but we are hearing from inside Homs that funerals have already begun.
Across Syria a picture is emerging of government forces holding the centre of big towns and the main roads, and the Free Syrian Army becoming increasingly active and almost controlling parts of cities like Homs and areas of the countryside.
These men have only very light weapons - machine-guns and rocket propelled grenades - and they have no answer when government forces decide to use heavy weapons, as they appear to have done overnight.
Why did this take place on the day the UN Security Council is voting on a motion critic of Syria?
It could be because the Free Syrian Army have been so successful that areas of Homs have slipped from the government’s grasp. I think the government army commanders on the ground simply thought they could not wait any longer.
The Free Syrian Army have told me this morning that they are going to conduct what they call a “general offensive” in reply to what has happened in Homs.
I think we are going to see an escalation in the violence.
We are seeing bigger and bigger attacks by the Free Syrian Army.
On Friday we followed an attack on an army base outside Homs. The fighters said they had over 100 men - I counted at least 60. They did not manage to take that base but they attacked over a number of hours and it was a big battle.
I think the focus in Syria now is moving away from street protests - though they still continue - and into an escalating guerrilla campaign.
#Syria rebels gain foothold in Damascus
When the BBC team approached a checkpoint set up by the rebel Free Syria Army in the suburbs of Damascus, masked men with Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades moved towards us - a few of them offering dates and biscuits.
It is customary to give mourners something sweet, and a funeral was about to start that they said they were protecting.
I had no idea before I saw them with my own eyes that the Free Syria Army was so active in and around Damascus.
The first time, in a small town called Zabadani, about half an hour from Damascus, it took a while for my brain to catch up with what I was seeing.
We went in there with an official from the ministry of information, who got us through the army cordon that surrounded the town.
The Free Syria Army were only 30 minutes from the presidential palace in Damascus”
A truce had been negotiated with the Free Syria Army - the first time that the Assad regime had properly acknowledged that the loose groups of ill-equipped defectors from its own forces were at all significant.
Even so, when a man who said he was an anti-government activist walked up to us and offered to take us to see the rebel fighters I couldn’t believe my ears.
I thought he was some sort of regime stooge and was playing an elaborate trick. I hadn’t realised that the army had pulled out of the town.
Our minder said later that he was horrified, and scared to see the rebel fighters close up, but he hid it so well that I thought he had organised some sort of hoax to discredit the BBC’s reporting.
How wrong can you be? It was all real. The Free Syria Army were only 30 minutes from the presidential palace in Damascus.
Since then I have seen their men in significant numbers inside Damascus itself. They are treated as heroes in the places they have appeared.
It is not exactly clear how long they have been out in the open, setting roadblocks and building firing positions here in Damascus - but as far as I can tell it is only the last week or two.
It took 10 months to get a visa to visit Syria for 10 days. Even though I thought I knew the country pretty well - I was a regular visitor before the uprising started last March and I’ve interviewed the president a couple of times - this trip has been full of surprises.
It has been hard to get out to report freely. But it has been possible, if occasionally hair-raising, and after 10 days I have a much better idea about what is happening.
First of all it is not a matter of the regime against the rest. President Assad has significant support.
It is probably being eroded by the tide of blood, but he can still can count on most of the Allawite community he comes from - also on many Christians - and significant numbers of Druze and Kurds.
That could be as much as 40% of the population. The Allawites support him because of who he is.
The others believe he will safeguard minorities in a way that the mainly Sunni Muslims in the opposition and the free army would not.
What is also clear is that President Assad is losing ground in and around the capital. The poor Sunni suburbs - grim, poor tangles of concrete - are harbouring the free army.
They are not a match for the president’s forces yet. But they are getting stronger.
Dark days ahead
The regime, and the people who want it overthrown, view what is happening here as a fight to the finish. For both sides, it is winner takes all.
The fact that the country is splitting along confessional lines is dangerous. In Lebanon, next door, they had a sectarian civil war that pretty much destroyed the country.
In Syria it is not a war yet, but it is starting to look like one. Homs, the centre of the uprising in the north, is paralysed and battered. Deraa, where it started in the south, feels as if it is being patrolled by an occupying army.
There are questions I cannot answer. How much force does the regime hold in reserve? Will the president face a palace coup, perhaps from an Allawite general fearful that Mr Assad’s stand will destroy their whole community? And will foreigners intervene decisively, as they did in Libya?
I cannot see how, in the long term, the regime can survive an uprising started by people who are so determined that they demonstrate even when they might get killed. But it will not go quietly.
Everyone I have spoken to here believes the worst days still lie ahead.