All battles and bombardments share their secrets one by one. Eastern Ghouta is no different. Why the sudden, savage bombardment of these Syrian towns and villages more than three weeks ago? Why the wasteland of homes and streets – and how did so many of the civilians survive, along with hundreds of Islamist gunmen?
You can do no better that start your enquiry in a frontline dugout near Arbeen, on the old and now war-smashed international highway between Damascus and Aleppo. It is protected by oil barrels of solid concrete, an iron roof, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a couple of rifles and a rusting motorbike, presumably to carry messages when the lines were cut. “Twenty mortars a day,” one of the Syrian soldiers says, rolling his eyes.
And now it is over, he hopes. But – aside from the oil lamps and the cups of ‘mutta’ tea (an outrageous non-alcoholic brew originating from Argentine plants, which the Syrian army drinks by the pint) – what catches your attention is the absence of a single trench.
The soldiers sport beards like the French ‘poilu’ in the Great War a hundred years ago. But they dig no trenches. Not a single communications alleyway winds through the dirt and mud on either side of the dugout to give the running messenger cover from those mortars. Maybe the motorbike increased their chances. But no one has ever provided me with a serious explanation of why the lattice of frontline trenches and rear trenches and revetments dug so deeply a century ago – deeper by the Brits than by the French, deeper still by the Germans – has never caught on in Syria.
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