HOMS, Syria: The command post where the Syrian army general now sits, receiving radio updates from the front line two streets away where his men are battling rebels in the Old City of Homs, was once a family home.
Crackling walkie-talkies are now strewn across the glass coffee table, where cotton doilies – the signs of a once carefully cared for home – are still laid out.
A crumpled looking soldier serves tea in the household’s delicate china cups. And on the lounge suite where the family sat together in peacetime before they left in terror due to the fighting over a year ago, two Kalashnikovs are now propped up. Christian icons still hang on the walls. Glass cabinets display precious crystal trinkets.
Most streets in this Bab Sbaa neighborhood are empty but for a few families who, with nowhere else to go and finding their homes still standing, returned to a ghost-like existence amid the rubble. According to one Christian charity worker in the neighborhood, about 800 families have returned out of a former population of around 2,500.
Corrugated gates of shop fronts are warped into hideous mutations. The road is cracked and uneven. Shells and rockets have left gaping holes in residential buildings, exposing bedrooms and kitchens – symbols of the private routines of daily lives, suddenly interrupted by war.
Every wall and surface here is riddled with bullet holes. The lack of life imposes an awful silence, broken only by the crackle of gunfire and the occasional thud of mortar fire some 500 meters away at the city’s front line.
Weary-looking army officers and civilian militia members, or what residents call “local guardians,” are stationed at every corner, sipping tea, crouched on crates, with guns slung across their laps, in the hollowed entrances to burned-out shops and houses. All have been on duty for over a year.
Some have recently returned from the front line, where they say rebel snipers are stationed, making entrance impossible. The army has positioned tanks all around, they say, but, according to one officer, they are under orders not to attack, for now.
“We have been told not to fire on them unless they attack us first. If it were up to me, we would go in and kill the lot of them,” one officer, no more than 18 years old, says.
In nearby besieged Bab Amr, taken by the rebels a year ago before being overrun by the army, fighting has resumed. Tanks stationed on the outskirts of the neighborhood fire mortar bombs. On occasion, warplanes are deployed to shoot from the air while rebels, holed up between residential buildings inside, fire at army positions using Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.
It’s a tried-and-tested strategy that has failed to either wipe out rebel operations or force an army retreat, but instead resulted in hundreds if not thousands of civilian and military deaths.
The Syrian army, according to both military officials and civilian accounts, was largely trained for an international, rather than internal, conflict – preparation for a war against Israel. Here, where targets are hidden and snipers rule, that training has proved grossly inefficient.
From his lounge room post, the general, who asks not to be named, says the Syrian army is shifting strategy. In faded military fatigues and with the cliched ‘thousand yard stare,’ he offers a frank assessment of why, after two years, his men are still locked in battle, despite having far superior weaponry. He also makes a tacit admission that their tactics have resulted in civilian deaths.
“We can’t actually see them [the rebels] because they use the buildings as shelter to hide. You can watch for a whole day and you will never see them,” he says resignedly.
“They use the holes in between the buildings to move around.
“The most difficult kind of war is street war. We don’t want to destroy the Old City buildings or kill civilians.
“That’s why the best way is to attack quietly and delicately. Step by step we will surround them.”
There have been reports of Croatian-made weaponry reaching the opposition fighters through Jordan, but when asked whether the rebels were now better armed, the general says he has noticed an increase in the use of weapons, but not the variety.
“The FSA is using snipers, mortars and sometimes RPGs, or bombs they manufacture themselves,” he says.
“We have noticed they have more weapons and are more active. They used to use RPGs only sparingly, now they are using more of them.”
The general insists army morale is high, but admits defections have taken place: “There were some cases where they were bought by the opposition. But those that are still with us believe we will win.”
“Of course they are tired, but they believe in what they are doing, in returning peace to the country. Even those who are due for leave prefer not to return to their villages because they fear they might be killed. They prefer to stay here and fight with us.”
Another general, based in a village that was until lately rebel-controlled, confirms the army’s shift in strategy.
Also asking not to be named, the general and air force pilot says a new, elite group of fighters have been trained in tactical warfare over the last six months to adapt to the specific localized circumstances.
“We had fighters that were educated in street fighting belonging to the Presidential Guard and other units, but now we need these special fighters for street fighting,” he says. “They are trained and ready and have started to be deployed.”
He agrees the new deployment represents a shift in strategy. “We didn’t expect it to last so long, so yes, we needed to change the strategy.”
Asked to comment on rumors that fighters were being trained in Iran or Russia or assisted by Hezbollah, he is adamant: “We have our own training. We don’t need their assistance.”
It is hard to say whether this new approach will alter the dynamics on the ground. The neighborhoods of Bab Amr and others in Homs are testament to the fact that while government forces can temporarily overrun positions, the rebels show no sign of giving up and will continue to rear their heads.
From her second floor apartment in Bab Sbaa Street, Leena points out the holes where bullets shattered her windows and punctured her doorframe.
Her family is now the only one living in the street, once part of a thriving mixed neighborhood where Christians, Sunnis and Alawites lived side by side.
“We have the Army on one side and the rebels on the other. It’s very insecure,” she says.
“I feel crazy thinking of all the families here that have lost their young guys. I never thought Syrians could kill Syrians.”