DAMASCUS, Syria — Rebel fighters who planned and participated in intense fighting in the Syrian capital two weeks ago say they never intended to capture and hold portions of the city. They view the skirmishing, widely seen as a victory for the government, as just the opposite.
It was an excellent victory, said Abu Abdullah, a commander in the unit that exercises rebel tactical control over the western half of Damascus. We accomplished our objectives, gained experience, and had very low casualties. The Free Army is stronger as a result, and the regime is weaker.
Abu Maher, a rebel machine gunner, recounted what the rebels say were the fruits of the battle. With 16 men, our group destroyed four tanks and an armored car, and we took a Dushka, he said, referring to a Russian-made heavy machine gun. We never had enough ammunition to capture the entire city, so how could that have been our plan? We withdrew when we received the order, not because we were forced.
The rebel version of the battle is the first account from inside Damascus of what took place in the capital in the aftermath of the assassination July 18 of three top defense officials in the government of President Bashar Assad, a blow that claimed key members of Assads so-called crisis group during its daily meeting to plot war strategy. Among the dead were the defense minister and the head of the army. A fourth official died later.
Credit for the bombing was immediately claimed by rebel officials in southern Turkey, who said they had planned the bombing. But Abu Abdullah said the bombing and the subsequent fighting in Damascus were planned by a council of local commanders, and that Free Syrian Army headquarters in Turkey had had nothing to do with initiating or coordinating the attack. As he spoke, fellow fighters nodded their agreement.
The Free Army is inside Syria, not outside. Why should we take orders from Riad al Asaad? he said, referring to the putative leader of the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, who issued a statement shortly after the bombing claiming responsibility for the act. We get hardly any of our money or weapons from him. He claimed credit for something he knew nothing about.
There is no way to verify Abu Abdullahs account of the bombing and fighting in Damascus. Using a pseudonym, Abu Abdullah met with a reporter who entered Damascus surreptitiously and agreed to discuss the fighting, previous accounts of which have surfaced only from second- and third-hand sources interviewed by reporters who are outside Syria.
According to rebels here, the fighting began the evening before the assassinations, when multiple attacks were launched throughout the city.
Abu Mahers group was tasked with blocking a route government reinforcements might take into the city in the southwestern neighborhood of al Kadam. He said his unit arrived around 4 p.m. and began to construct fighting positions for an ambush against an anticipated government convoy.
The civilians came out of their houses and helped us dig, he said. Everyone could see what was going to happen, but nobody alerted the army. Kadam is 99 percent with the revolution.
The northbound convoy arrived about 6 p.m., Abu Maher said. It included four Russian-made T-62 tanks, two armored personnel carriers and two armored cars. Abu Maher said his squad destroyed the first few vehicles in the column and captured the Dushka machine gun from one of the armored cars. The remaining armored vehicles established a defensive position and returned fire, aided by fire from a government checkpoint about 500 yards further south.
In the ensuing firefight, government forces shelled the rebel position and the surrounding neighborhood, and a group of attack helicopters appeared.
When it got dark, we got the order to return (to our base), Abu Maher said. He said they had expended about half of their ammunition during the fight. I was ready to continue to Midan, but that was not the order. Midan is a neighborhood in central Damascus.
He said his unit saw no further action in the following days. The attack was not a mistake, he said. It was awesome, a great experiment. We are more familiar with our power now.
Later Tuesday night, after learning that the government convoy had been halted, Abu Abdullah and a group of about 150 fighters attacked a government weapons factory in the al Kadam neighborhood, initiating the assault with a homemade bomb against the compounds perimeter.
We attacked after dark, he said, so that they could not use their snipers, and so there would be fewer civilians in the streets. He said the assault continued for 90 minutes, but his unit was unable to penetrate the compound. When government helicopters appeared overhead, his unit withdrew to elsewhere in the neighborhood.
We had six martyrs and 25 wounded, and used about half our ammunition, he said, using the word martyrs to refer to the dead. I know we killed many more of them. Also during the battle some soldiers tried to defect, but they were shot by their own force.
The next day, Abu Abdullah and a contingent of about 60 men attacked the government forces still holding a defensive perimeter around the armored vehicles destroyed by Abu Mahers group the previous night.
We attacked them with RPGs and destroyed most of the vehicles that had not been hit the night before, he said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. We fought better because of the news of the bombing, and the regime army fought worse. Many of those who were not wounded ran away to the checkpoint. Then the checkpoint began to shoot their own vehicles with tanks, to prevent us from capturing them. In this way, the soldiers who did not run were killed by the regime army. He said his unit suffered no casualties during the four-hour battle.
In all, we used about 75 percent of our ammunition, and eventually after dark we returned (to our base), he said. We could not take any prisoners because of all the tank fire. He said the withdrawal came on orders from his higher commander and was coordinated throughout the city.
He said that in the intervening two weeks, his unit, which he called Katiba al Sahabah or al Sahabah Brigade, had replenished almost all of its ammunition stores and was ready to fight again.
I cannot tell you the exact day we will attack, he said with a barely-hidden smile. But it will be soon.
Tice is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @Austin_Tice