11.29.12

Blackout in Damascus: Syria’s Winter of Discontent

Damascus plunged into a technological black hole, as Internet and cellphone service was shut down. Mike Giglio on how al-Assad’s regime may be gearing up for a long, bloody fight.

In recent days, some seasoned members of the Syrian opposition have been watching the situation in Damascus with a sense of alarm. The heavily secured capital—once considered an untouchable stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s government—has spiraled into violence as rebels have penetrated deeper into the city. But the rebellion’s steady gains have lately been accompanied by a sense of dread. “This winter will be a terrible one in Damascus,” said a rebel coordinator who goes by the nickname Abu Jalal, who has been working with rebel groups in the capital. “God have mercy.”

Rebels and activists in the city fear that the government, pressed by their success, may be planning a brutal campaign to push back. “Things will be happening over the next few days in Damascus that will cause huge massacres on both sides,” said Ammar al-Wawi, a rebel spokesman and commander.

Those dire predictions came just before a massive car bombing in the suburb of Jaramana, which killed dozens of civilians yesterday. Then, on Thursday morning, Damascus citizens received more ominous news: Internet service across the country had been cut, and many phone lines were also down in Damascus. The capital, it seemed, had been cut off from the outside world. As activists, family members and journalists scrambled to make contact with people inside the city, a sense of alarm and confusion took hold. “It seems that Damascus is about to go crazy,” said an activist who goes by the nickname Jodi Chou, who is based in the Damascus neighborhood of Daraya, but who left yesterday for a short trip to Beirut.

Some analysts believe that an aggressive government offensive may indeed be underway in Damascus—something that could be seen as a sign of desperation on the part of the government. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, points out that the rebels have made a series of key gains around the capital in recent weeks, including the capture of a helicopter military base outside the city. Heavy fighting was also reported near the Damascus airport today, causing some major airlines to cancel flights. In light of these developments, Tabler said, the government may be feeling pressed to push back. “Losing Damascus would be a disaster,” he said. “They have to try to hold onto it, and the only way to do that is to reassert themselves. And we’re already starting to see that.”

As for the disrupted Internet and phone service, Tabler said the government may be trying to scramble rebel communications ahead of an offensive. “I think the regime is getting ready to take the gloves off,” he said.

It’s still unclear how the Internet blackout happened—and for what purpose. While Syria’s information minister blamed “terrorists” for the disruption, others suspect that the government is behind the blackout. “I think we can discount the theory that rebels did the damage, because landlines and cellphones were down as well,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident based in the United States and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The regime is behind this, and seems desperate because of the recent advances made by rebels in Damascus and elsewhere—but especially in Damascus.”

“The rebels were quietly laying siege to Damascus. Not in the traditional manner, but by capturing key bases around the city and making travel along the major highways a risky affair,” he added. “I think the regime clearly panicked and it might be trying to undertake some major offensive operations in the area to get the situation under control, before the rebels are more organized and better supplied.”

Reuters quoted an anonymous Syrian official today as saying that a “cleansing operation” was underway in Damascus.

‘It seems that Damascus is about to go crazy.’

In the midst of the confusion, many rebels remained wary of what the government might be up to. “The regime is acting weird—it seems like there’s no clear reason for its actions,” said Nabil al-Ameer, a rebel spokesman based in Damascus. “It shut down communications, closed the airport, closed off the roads leading to the airport. Yesterday, the pro-government Lebanese TV station al-Manar announced the closing of the airport for “maintenance.”

Likewise, a security brief from a main rebel-intelligence unit indicated the rebels were unsure of what to make of the latest events in Damascus, outlining one scenario in which today’s events might be a decoy to lure the opposition into a sense of false security.

The regime will “show weakness to lure [rebel] battalions to move toward Damascus, targeting them by air” as they move toward the capital, the brief reads. “Upon the [rebels’] entry to Damascus, they will suffer intense air raids, rocket fire and artillery … next, every province will be ‘cleansed,’ one after another.”

Soon after the brief went out, according to an opposition activist monitoring rebel-intelligence discussions, rebel commanders began to argue—maybe a weakened government had planted the information itself, in order to dissuade them from intensifying their Damascus campaign.