A rare and dangerous look into battle-ravaged Syria

(CBS News) HOMS, Syria - The Syrian dictatorship has been fighting for nearly a year and a half to put down a popular rebellion. Forty-thousand Syrians are dead.

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It's a place few Western reporters have gone, but CBS News has made its way there for a rare look inside.

Just over a year ago the city's desolate streets hummed with life. Baba Amr was a bustling neighborhood, until it suddenly turned into the epicenter of Syria's civil war. Armed opposition gunmen battled against the Syrian military machine.

Destruction in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs.
Destruction in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs.
CBS News

After months of ferocious fighting, the Syrian army did manage to take back Baba Amr -- but at a terrible price. Even now, only five percent of the people have returned to their homes and the fighting has moved just down the road.

But to get to the town, CBS News had to take a surreal trip through a fully functioning business district crowded with shoppers -- to suddenly come across a front line marked by tanks and Syrian soldiers.

A young captain, who wanted to be known only as Omar, offered to show us around. Four months of fighting have shattered this area of the city.

Omar gestured to a curtain hung in an alley to block the snipers' view. But even so, when soldiers pass the place -- they duck.

A Syrian ducks while passing through a dangerous part of Baba Amr in Homs, Syria.
A Syrian ducks while passing through a dangerous part of Baba Amr in Homs, Syria.
CBS News

Just behind battle-scarred buildings, rebel fighters are still in control.

CBS News climbed inside a building to get a better look.

There wasn't a lot moving outside, although it's dangerous to get too close. CBS News may have been able to see more from a hole in the building, but the soldiers said it's too big. If visible, the crew could have been sniped at by rebel snipers in the building just across the alley.

A young private on duty said the army has the rebels surrounded on all sides.

Damaged buildings in Baba Amr, an Homs neighborhood that has experienced intense fighting between Syrian rebels and the dictatorship's army.
Damaged buildings in Baba Amr, an Homs neighborhood that has experienced intense fighting between Syrian rebels and the dictatorship's army.
CBS News

They get supplies like water, food and ammunition "mostly through tunnels, and the sewage system," he said.

So the fight for central Homs stutters on, pot shots being fired by both sides.

The army -- now at war on multiple fronts across the country -- has here been forced to accept a draw.

Syria has one of the largest armies in the Middle East, but the dictatorship hasn't been able to put down the rebellion for a number of reasons. For one, they're fighting on dozens of fronts and up and down the country. Secondly, their army isn't terribly well-trained and it is fighting a very nimble mobile insurgency, which is the most difficult kind of warfare.

Today, fighting inside the city has includes hit-and-run attacks and sporadic gunfire. But in the suburbs, the fighting is much heavier, including shelling from fighter planes in the air as well as mortars and tank shells.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."

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