Elegant Damascus, besieged by both sides

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In a city lived in for seven millennia, it may take more than two years of civil war to put a full stop to the genteel round of dinner parties and walks in the park for the affluent folk of downtown Damascus.

But from out in the grim suburbs, opposition groups incensed at their prosperous neighbors’ passivity lob in more bombs and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces make their presence ever more heavily felt around his stronghold, disrupting comfortable old routines and setting fear gnawing at Damascenes' cocoon of civilization.

Many feel trapped between an unloved authority in the form of the 43-year-old Assad dynasty and hungry revolutionaries at the gates, who resent the city’s privileged lifestyle.

Though fighting has turned parts of the outer sprawl of the capital of more than 1.5 million into an urban battlefield, especially since major opposition fighters advanced last summer, and though some 70,000 Syrians have been killed since protests began two years ago, central areas of Damascus long remained untouched.

But that is changing as frontlines encroach and as troops and the shabbiha militias loyal to Assad reinforce the garrison around his power base. Noticeable too is how people who have fled homes in the suburbs have been camping in downtown parks.

Then last week three car bombs exploded in central Damascus, killing dozens. Hours later, mortars fell on the wealthiest district of Maliki, where dozens of high-ranking government officials and the prosperous merchant class live.

One landed next to the home of the foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, a few minutes’ walk from the private residence of the president himself.

Another fell on a building formerly owned by Assad’s uncle, Rifaat, now banished in exile. From the building, which houses top officials, hangs a portrait of the president.

Outgunned by forces dominated by Assad’s Alawite minority, mainly the Sunni Muslim opposition have made little headway of late in reaching the center. After the devastation suffered by the suburbs from rockets, opposition fighters attacked on the city center are sparse in comparison.

But those living there see them as an outlet for mounting resentment among the Sunni poor on the outskirts over what they see as sympathies for Assad among the wealthy downtown, not just among Alawites but also prosperous Sunni merchant families.

“You just wait and see what the [opposition] will do when they enter Damascus,” said one taxi driver, originally from the outer suburbs who is now a refugee in what he regards as Damascus proper. “If they destroy it all, it won’t be enough.”

Another man from the embattled suburb of Harasta said that any looting of the house of the rich in the center would be “halal” - permissible under Islamic law:

“They don’t know what we’ve been through,” he said. “Our homes are completely destroyed. You know how many families have been killed in my town? Women? Children? Old people?”

Opposition groups have called on downtown Damascenes to join them, even if only through turning their backs more firmly on the Assad, in civil disobedience. Many feel let down, even by those in the city who would welcome change, suspecting them of putting fear of revolution ahead of their dislike of Assad.

One businessman, a critic of the president, said when he visited his family shoe factory in an opposition stronghold on the outskirts. “I asked them why they had allowed so many kidnappings and killings to happen under their nose,” he said, after his own brother survived such a kidnap.
“They told me: ‘We protect our own. But outsiders are not our problem. Rich city folks? Not our problem.’”

After last week's car bombings, comments by opposition figures on social media echoed that resentment of the wealthy:

“Damascenes keep going to work and sending their kids to school every day as if life were totally normal, when the rest of us are dying. They deserve it,” said another.

Yet the Damascenes also feel besieged by a government that has militarized their capital and employed motley militiamen from the Alawite rural heartlands to enforce security.

For months, Damascus had already looked like a garrison town, where armed government security can sometimes outnumber and often bully pedestrians in the streets.

Now, the government has responded to last week’s mortar attacks on the center by issuing heavier weaponry to its urban armed forces. Where their weapons of choice before were pistols and assault rifles, government security men now lug around shoulder-mounted rocket-propelled grenade RPG.L launchers.

“I don’t even feel safe at home anymore,” complained one Damascene father of two. “It’s one thing for government forces to walk around with machineguns. But RPGs? A mortar shell or grenade can come flying through my window any minute.

“It’s ridiculous.”

The government’s shadowy shabbiha militiamen move about town with impunity, carrying half-concealed pistols or shoulder-slung Kalashnikovs. They speed through red lights with an apparent disregard for pedestrians, and cut to the front of any line.

Leaving the house at night is dangerous and even simple tasks, like going to the pharmacy, have become difficult.

After a bomb last July killed Assad’s brother-in-law, the authorities began to raid clinics and private hospitals in search of doctors who treat wounded opposition fighters.

Medical staff has fled and now almost every pharmacy in the city has had a fixture: an officer from state security who sits behind the counter and watches the comings and goings of customers, looking for tell-tale signs they are aiding opposition fighters.

Prices have risen sharply and militiamen and soldiers manning the streets harass residents as lawlessness and kidnapping continue to rise.
“They keep oppressing and oppressing,” said one Damascene, referring to Assad’s leadership.

“But the real tragedy is that the rebels hate us, too.”