Original by Dmitriy Steshin and Aleksandr Kots published by Komsomolskaya Pravda; translated from Russian by J.Hawk
The elderly taxi driver Akhmad Mukhazhir starts his worn-out Peugeot of 1980s vintage. It has nearly 500,000km on its odometer. He had no shortage of customers during peacetime. He worked on the Beirut-Damascus line. He’s from the capital, but he moved to its eastern suburb of Kharastu. The children grew up, got married, one had to come up with some housing ideas. Who knew back then that the front line would one day run through his house.
–The militants appeared suddenly, and there were many of them–Akhmad remembers. –They almost reached our house. Then they started to dig trenches but the army showed up and threw them back toward the highway. A Syrian MiG starts a bombing run above us and drops a bomb somewhere behind Akhmad’s house. A mushroom of smoke rises and a light breeze brings explosive-reeking dust our way. We ask:
–It’s very noise here. How can you live?
–I already got used to, it’s not scary anymore–the man shrugs his shoulders. –There are only few people left on the block, but we are all going to wait until all the terrorists are destroyed. Living is hard, there’s little work. But there is electricity and water. I pay $50 for the apartment and there’s some left for food. We’re not rolling in luxury but we’re not starving either. And we are not planning to leave. We have nowhere to go to, and we don’t want to be drifting about refugee camps.
Akhmad puts it in first and shudders slightly at the tank gun fire, without even blinking. Along the way he picks up a girl in a school uniform and a backpack. Now his main source of income is bringing kids back from school. Kids from the block are all playing soccer on the big school stadium. There is a checkpoint right at the school’s entrance, the last before the actual front. But the kids are not at all interested in the war. They’ve gotten so accustomed to it they’ve become indifferent to it.
The militants came to Kharasta three years ago. They at once cut the main road connecting Damascus and Homs. There was one other bypass route. Narrow and inconvenient. It would seem that the militants considered Kharasta to be a jumping-off point from which one could cut off the last communications artery uniting the country’s north and south.
–Their tactics are simple and proven, says the operation’s commanding general Salman Eisa. As soon as they occupy territory they immediately fortify and dig themselves in, build tunnels and earthen bunkers. But here there’s one additional twist. One of the Syrian Army HQs was located here, it is deep underground and is heavily fortified. When we start pounding them with artillery and aircraft, they simply hide in the bunker. Then we form small detachments and gradually retake the territory, squeezing out the militants. As you can see, in the last month we’ve liberated considerable territory.
We are sitting in a destroyed multi-story building from which one can view the battlefield. A DShK 12.7mm machine-gun is firing from the adjacent room filling the floor with fumes. The gunner is correcting his aim, and in a few minutes an extremist bunker catches fire. It’s ammunition storage–red tracers are exploding and dancing above the parapet. The machine-gunner is not in a hurry. It seems that nobody here is in a hurry.
To the left of us, a tank occupies firing position, hiding behind an unfinished garage, and fires at a target one kilometer away. Two MiGs come one after another and drop bombs on the Peugeot and Mercedes workshops–the militants have been dug in there as well for the last month and a half. It’s a mystical coincidence. In Donetsk, one of the strongpoints of resistance was also a car workshop, this time belonging to a Swedish automaker. Small assault groups are moving forward in order to take up new positions. We run after them on the huge parking lot with hundreds of burned cars and find ourselves behind a former ceramics factory which was only just taken by Syrian troops. About 50-300 meters separate us from the enemy. Soldiers are fiercely firing through slits. Soldiers are preparing homemade supercaliber mortar bombs which are launched from ordinary 120mm mortars. The bombs are huge, they are made from old gas cylinders, and they fly so slowly one can observe them with naked eye. Very inaccurate, but the blast is so powerful that it terrorizes everyone around.
Through the roof windows we see a monstrous shell unhurriedly sail over us, the explosion is such that it rocks the walls. Artillery immediately joins in and the militants again hide themselves underground. There is time to evacuate the wounded and drink tea. The tea is a must here.
The majority of our readers, thank God, see the war on TV and in the internet. Or in the movies where epic multi-month battles take no more than two hours of screen time. Their questions are understandable and logical: “Why is it going so slowly?”, “Why didn’t Russia’s help transform the situation?”, “Where are the tank wedges, carpet bombings, breakthroughs to the depth of 100km with the outflanking of demoralized enemy forces?”. Where? In reality everything is more complicated. Deep breakthroughs can be cut off at the root and victorious offensives quickly become humiliating cauldrons. Once again, remember the Donbass. The enemy is still not demoralized, like the Germans were in early 1943 at Stalingrad. The enemy is confused, bloodied, but he his fighting for every trench, for every bunker, for every rathole.
The fighting’s trends are not favoring the militants, we’ve seen that with our own eyes. The Syrian Army is implacably liberating captured territories. Kilometer after kilometer, hundred meters after hundred meters. It’s advancing like a steamroller. The Syrian Army has been terribly bled in the five years of war. Bled by unsuccessful operations, poorly prepared assaults. The army’s core has been severely roughed up, manpower reserves are close to exhaustion, and the Chinese “human wave” tactic is simply not appropriate here. They’ve decided to advance carefully, with the understanding that the militants have spent years building their defenses on key sectors of the front! We’ve seen how the Syrian Army fights for ourselves at Kharasta. It’s advancing carefully, which means it spends at least a week on identifying and suppressing firing positions. First visually, then by inviting return fire. Then they move up the assault teams. That’s what we call “reconnaissance by battle”–depending on the situation, they may fortify themselves on their new positions. Or they may retreat. The groups identify concealed firing positions, reserve positions, but they take losses. Which are naturally much lower than they would have been in an unprepared, head-on assault. And this process is repeated dozens of times, for weeks. Meter after meter. Considering that the militants’ manpower reserves are also not endless and their logistics have been interrupted by the Russian aviation, this tactic will sooner or later bring about a strategic success. Although there already are tactical successes–the army is moving forward, and its losses are minimal.