Sniping a deadly weapon in Syria’s war
DAMASCUS - “Beware of Snipers” is an expression that Syrians have added to their lexicon as the devastating civil war drags on into a fifth year.
A deadly sniper war is being waged in parallel to the conflict on several fronts, especially on the outskirts of Damascus and in Aleppo, the country’s second largest city. Snipers are as much a cause of fear and terror as indiscriminate shelling and car bombs.
Travellers, arriving in Damascus from the north, mostly from Homs and the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia, regularly recount the terror they face during their journey.
“We are terrified just by the idea that a sniper could be monitoring our movement in order to shoot us,” one of them said.
Mohammad Salem, a bus driver serving the Tartous-Damascus line, says he is used to the sight of smashed vehicles and overturned cars on the roadside in the suburbs of Douma and Harasta. But, he said he still “gets the chills” every time he passes on what he calls “the road of death”.
“When I look in the mirror, I could see fear and terror on the faces of passengers every time we passed on that road,” Salem said, in reference to the 13-kilometre stretch that is mainly targeted by snipers from the rebel group Jaysh al-Islam.
Troops erected tall sand barriers in several spots to block snipers’ line of vision and prevent them from disrupting vehicle movement on the vital artery leading to the capital.
Mahmoud Mouei, also a bus driver, said his vehicle was hit by sniper fire on six occasions. “Every time, a traveller was injured but, in one incident, a woman was killed. She was struck in the head by a sniper’s bullet,” he told The Arab Weekly.
“All the incidents occurred in the same spot, some 3 kilometres away from Damascus, near the building of the Ministry of Water Resources,” he said. “The sniper holed up in the area has obviously escaped the army’s dozens of rocket barrages aimed at silencing him.”
According to a police source, who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity, four sniping cases are recorded on average every week in that spot. “In March some 20 sniping incidents resulted in the killing of two civilians, injuring 20 others and damaging ten vehicles,” the source said.
Opposition armed groups insist they are targeting army vehicles but their claims were refuted by a medical source at Tishreen Military Hospital near the road. “Hundreds of civilians, including students, women and children are among sniper victims,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
“The opposition’s allegation that their sniper fire is aimed at the military only is inaccurate,” said a resident of Damascus who asked to be identified by his initials, M.A. “They are actually targeting civilian buses owned by businessmen close to the regime, causing many casualties among them.”
Ayad Obeid, a civil servant working in Damascus, travels once a week to the central city of Hama to visit his family. “Before departing, I check the safety condition of the roads with a friend of mine who works with the police. Then I decide which ones to take, in line with what he tells me.”
The army has worked on securing alternative side roads near Damascus, behind Qasioun mountain, which overlooks the capital. Many vehicles avoid such roads, however, because of tight security and the large number of military checkpoints. It is also 35 kilometres longer than the normal route.
Lorry drivers transporting merchandise into Damascus make a point of removing shields from their trucks when they reach the “danger zone” to indicate to snipers they are carrying non-military goods.
In residential areas civilians are coexisting with the daily threat of snipers. Sand barricades and large pieces of cloth hanging on poles are used to block the view of snipers on the frontline between the government-held Tadamon neighbourhood and Yarmouk camp, which is controlled by Islamist rebels.
“Beware of sniping” banners are found everywhere on the frontlines of the northern city of Aleppo.
“Sniping has become a common factor of terror for all the people regardless of their political stances and sympathies,” said Sumer Zakaria, 41, who lives in the Ashrafieh neighbourhood adjacent to the front line.
According to 55-year-old Jaber, whose daughter was killed by sniper fire in Aleppo, both parties to the conflict are using what he called “the malicious weapon.”
“I don’t know who killed her. She was on her way to the university. I say to all: Enough killing… enough bloodletting.”
As it came increasingly under sniper fire, the Syrian military also trained more snipers, who proved to be “an effective” weapon in the many-fronted war, according to a military source who asked to remain anonymous.
In addition, the army has been seeking to control of high-rise buildings and hills for their advantageous sniping positions. The army also brought down a 22-storey residential tower where Jaysh al-Islam snipers were holed up.
While there are no accurate figures about sniping victims, monitoring groups on opposite sides have reported a decrease in sniping incidents, largely due to the fact that the areas controlled by the various belligerents have become more clearly delineated.