Syrian army turns to women on Damascus front lines

Damascus (AFP) - Perched on a makeshift bench taking turns with a sniper rifle, the Syrian army's top markswomen await their "prey" on the front line in east Damascus.

Sergeant Rim, 20, and Chief Sergeant Samar, 21, belong to the First Women's Commando Brigade of the Republican Guard, an elite unit stationed on some of the most dangerous battlegrounds on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

There are roughly 800 soldiers in these all-female commando brigades, who face determined and entrenched rebels to the east and southeast of Damascus.

Rim and Samar's Russian-made SV-98 rifle pokes out through a small hole in the side of a building in the Jobar district.

In front of them is a scene of devastation. There is no sign of life amid the rubble and burned-out vehicles.

But looks can be deceiving -- the ground beneath the commandos is crisscrossed with tunnels and death lurks at every corner.

The building where the women lie in wait is less than 200 metres (yards) from rebel lines. It is defended entirely by female commandos.

Their commander describes them as the finest markswomen in the brigade.

"It's true that we have a lot of patience, and this is the most important quality for a sniper," Rim says shyly.

- 'Not a question of gender' -

A fearsome warrior hides behind her eye make-up and childlike smile -- she boasts a record of 11 kills in a day.

"My commander gave me a sort of certificate, like in school," she says, smiling.

"I usually hit three or four targets per day, and honestly, if I miss a gunman, I could cry," she says.

Her fellow sniper's record is seven kills in a day.

From another vantage point in the same building, a third female commando opens fire with a B-10 recoilless rifle, a much bigger weapon that is usually mounted on wheels or a tripod.

"It has hit the target," Zeinab says proudly after one 82 mm round causes a terrifying explosion in a building 500 metres (yards) away.

The 21-year-old says she chose a career in the army after finishing her bachelor's degree. Her friends and family encouraged her decision and, after three months of intensive training, she joined the commandos.

Asked why she chose such a large weapon, Zeinab is unabashed as she expresses determination to cause the maximum casualties.

"Snipers kill one person at a time. But with the B-10, when I hit that house, I could be sure everyone inside was killed."

Her male commanding officer Captain Ziad takes pride in her attitude.

"There's no difference between men and women. Some have a strong heart and deep courage, and others don't. It's not a question of gender."

- Promoting women -

The women commandos are new to the Syrian army but the unit's commander denies their introduction was enforced by the heavy losses in male ranks during more than four years of civil war.

More than 46,000 soldiers have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"It's true that it's the first time we have female commandos," says Major Ali.

"But it's a decision that was taken by President Bashar al-Assad, who wants to promote the role of Syrian women and show that they are capable of being successful in all fields."

In its battle with rebel fighters increasingly dominated by jihadists and other Islamists, the Assad regime has played up its secular credentials.

Major Ali says the women have all enlisted for 10 years.

Angham, 21, saw an army recruitment advertisement in a store in her home province of Hama after completing her bachelor's degree.

She underwent five months' training at the naval academy in Jbele, in northwestern Syria, before being transferred to the capital.

"My three brothers are soldiers, and I have a sister who wants to join me too," Angham says.

Her weapon of choice is the Dushka, a heavy machinegun.

Outside the building, Samar, 19, and two female comrades pass by in a tank, throwing up a cloud of dust behind them.

"Several of the women have learnt to drive it," Samar said.

"It weighs 43 tonnes but I said to myself: 'Why not?' It was very difficult but we succeeded."

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