Page last updated at 19:53 GMT, Monday, 23 January 2012

Armed activists encroach on Assad's stronghold

Watch Tim Whewell's report from the secret protests of Damascus

Newsnight's Tim Whewell has just returned from Syria where he managed to give his government minders the slip and meet armed opponents of President Bashar al-Assad regime established inside the Syrian capital.

To meet the Syrian opposition is to enter a cloak-and-dagger world most of us know only from novels - a world of coded messages, of silent rendezvous, of constant, exhausting fear.

In our hotel - where visiting journalists are always given the same rooms, almost certainly bugged - we turned the television up loud before discussing any plans in a whisper. We scribbled sensitive names on scraps of paper, rather than referred to them in speech.

Anti-Assad protester
The protests are guarded by members of the Free Syrian Army

We avoided making phone calls, instead making arrangements on Skype, which is much harder to monitor.

Then, one night, we left the hotel, past the ever-lurking security agents, taking a small camera in a rucksack, and chatting loudly about the souvenirs we were going to buy in the shopping district a few streets away.

Once there, having checked we were not being followed, we clambered wordlessly into a car that stopped momentarily, as agreed, outside a particular store at a particular time, and were driven off through the busy night-time streets of Damascus.

Evasion tactics

Leaving the brightly-lit central squares behind, we moved gradually into the dimmer industrial suburbs, and pulled up outside a shuttered workers' cafe in a run-down district of grey breeze-block buildings.

There we lurked in the parked car, growing increasingly nervous, for a message that seemed to take an age to come. Finally, after half an hour, we got a call from an unknown number - probably Skyped - giving no name and asking no details - just checking we had arrived.

Homs protest
It had been thought the FSA was operating in towns like Homs only

Five minutes later, a young man appeared out of the darkness, his face wrapped in scarf. Rapidly we followed him into a maze of shadowy backstreets, first by car and then on foot.

In the distance, we caught the sound of drumming. It grew louder with each corner we turned, until suddenly, we found ourselves in an open space between houses. It was almost filled by a mass of dark figures chanting, waving banners, and making victory signs in the air. Their main slogan, taunting Syria's president: "Bashar, your day will come."

Demonstrations like this take place nightly in the working-class suburb of Barzeh, as well as in other places across Damascus. Sometimes numbering just a couple of hundred, they swell to thousands on Fridays - the weekly high-point for protests - or when they are burying demonstrators shot by the security forces at previous gatherings.

Gaining ground

The protests here are guarded by soldiers of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose network of defectors from the government forces.

"The people here feel safe because of the Free Syrian Army," one activist told us. "What happened was that some honourable government soldiers came over to our side when they were sent here to shoot people.

President Assad making speech
The government does its best to project an image of total control

"They could see we were their brothers. For example, in this street one soldier saw the security forces behind him, and the people in front. But instead of shooting them, he shot in the air and then fled to a house. We took him to a wood near here where he joined the free army.

"Now it's their job to protect the demonstration, so that if the army comes they shoot on the army to give time to the people to escape."

Later, as the protest dispersed amid warnings that the police were on their way, the FSA soldiers guided us with torches down a safe escape route.

Previously it was thought that the FSA was operating mainly in towns and cities away from Damascus, such as Homs, Idlib, and Jisr al-Shoughour, that have seen mass demonstrations and considerable fighting - not in the capital where the authorities have largely succeeded in keeping control.

Secret police threat

Our discovery of a Free Army presence, at least in limited numbers, within Damascus, just a short distance from the presidential palace, shows how the 10-month-old revolt against Mr Assad is still gaining ground, slowly but steadily.

It is a confusing picture that makes it hard to assess the remaining strength of the regime. On the one hand, the opposition clearly has the numbers, and determination, to stage repeated protests within the capital, albeit not in the central streets and squares.

On the other hand, the precautions we - and the activists themselves - had to take to avoid detection shows that the regime's secret police - the dreaded Mukhabarat - still retains much of its power.

Psychologically, activists tell us they have thrown off much of the fear all Syrians have endured through the time of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez.

But while opposition supporters are still forced to operate, as we saw, like hunted animals, looking constantly over their shoulders, in danger of arrest, torture and death, there is life in the old regime yet.

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