Syrian Civil War Spreads to Damascus

Slowly but surely, the carnage in Syria has come to the capital, a city which had previously been insulated from the country’s mounting civil war.

Carole Alfarah / Polaris

The dentist in central Damascus is multitasking, toggling his attention between a soccer match on television and a Facebook chat about the first time he killed a man.

“It was my first operation, after joining the rebels about three months ago,” he writes, asking, like nearly all Syrians, not to be named for fear of reprisal. “He was an inspector in the security forces, a midlevel rank in military security. I watched his house, his car—or rather, his cars. And then I shot him.”

Suddenly he interrupts his story: “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!” he writes. “Wow, nice goal. Italy, 2. Germany, 0.”

One night an assassination, the next, a soccer match. This is the new normal in Damascus, as the war in Syria slowly but surely creeps into the capital, which until recently had been largely insulated from the uprising.

Roughly five weeks ago, the pounding sounds of explosions, mortars, and gunfire became a nightly occurrence, even for those living in the very center of Damascus. Increasing organization on the part of Free Syrian Army forces produced training and attacks like those in which the dentist participated. This week alone, insurgents targeted the Palace of Justice in downtown Damascus and a pro-government television station on the outskirts of the city. On Monday night, in perhaps their boldest assault to date, a small contingent attacked the base of the elite Republican Guard.

Such attacks are relatively weak in the face of the tremendous firepower government forces maintain in Damascus, meaning fighting is unlikely to engulf the city as it has in areas to the north along the main strategic axis in Homs, Hama, and Idlib. Analysts at Exclusive Analysis, a London-based risk consultancy firm say that the rebel forces, known as the Free Syrian Army, still lack the anti-armor and air defense weaponry that would allow them to hold onto territory and wrest major cities away from government control. Instead, there are likely to be a growing number of hit-and-run attacks designed to draw the military into the cities and away from other contested areas around Homs and Hama.

The result of this strategy means that security in Damascus will likely continue to decline, with little expectation that international mediation efforts might stem Syria’s downward spiral.

With no end in sight, the psychological impact of the rebel attacks is mounting. During the day, life carries on as normal. But at night, the streets belong to men with guns. Few dare to venture out past 11 p.m., when the government sets up its checkpoints throughout the city. Dodging them—or targeting them—soldiers in the Free Syrian Army use the cover of darkness to smuggle their weapons and conduct their operations. One woman, who also asked not to be named for security reasons, said a colleague slept in their office downtown near the parliament a few nights ago. He was convinced the fighting was taking place on the street right outside.

“You can never really tell where it’s coming from or how close it is,” she said. “It’s terrifying.”

According to the woman’s family members who live in the area, a rebel convoy last week managed to enter Abasayin Square, the major thoroughfare where protesters from the nearby suburbs had futilely tried to convene for their own Tahrir Square–style demonstrations in the early days of the revolution. For more than a year now, the stadium in the square has been packed full of security forces and equipment. As soon as the rebels rounded the corner, she said, the two sides began firing. For two hours, they battled over a building just outside the square, on a major street lined with the tidy high-rises of the Damascene upper-middle class. Her sister-in-law spent the night in the bathroom.

The next morning, she said, one of her neighbors packed up the kids and moved to Beirut. She tried to convince her sister-in-law to do the same. “The problem,” she said, “is that she believes the official version of events. She thinks Bashar al-Assad just has to finish the operation, then everything will be fine. But there is no operation to finish. It’s not going to stop. It’s going to be like this for years.”

All the while, stories trickle back from beyond the bubble, in areas to the north where rebels and forces loyal to the regime are fighting the fiercest battles for control of the country’s main artery, which runs from Damascus to Aleppo. Lacking reliable troops to conduct the crackdown in areas like Homs and Hama, the government has instead relied on the brutal tactics of shabiha militias. They are reportedly the ones responsible for the massacres in the villages of Houla and Qubeir, and their actions have elicited gory reprisals from rebel fighters.

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Many in Damascus say they are caught between the two sides, too repulsed by their methods to support anyone. A writer living just outside Douma recounted the dilemma facing a family friend, a Sunni man from Hama who serves as a driver in the army.

“He hates the regime, of course,” says the writer, who for security reasons, asked only to be referred to as Ghassan. “But his mother is now telling him that he can’t come home because the militias there put out a fatwa saying they’d execute anyone affiliated with the army. And not just execute, but decapitate, the Islamic way. He has no idea what to do. Even if he tries to go to Hama to defect, he could end up with his head cut off.”

For now, at least, the driver sees less risk in remaining with the army in Damascus. He is staying put.

The dentist made a different choice. A year ago, he was one of the city’s young, secular, liberal activists organizing sit-ins and passing along details of arrests to human-rights organizations, who were firmly against the rebels and their weapons. Slowly, however, he came to believe the only way to bring down the regime was to join them. The rebel forces in Damascus are a more diverse group than elsewhere in the country, where fighters are uniformly Sunni, he says. He has two Alawi friends who signed up before he did, one to smuggle weapons and another to fight. Still, he adds, 99 percent of the men fighting are Islamists, even in cosmopolitan Damascus.

It was a war he did not want, fought primarily by people with whom he does not agree. But it has come to him nonetheless, and he has chosen to join it. Next week, he will carry out his second operation.