I arrived to a different Damascus from the one I had seen a month ago. The distant sound of gunfire and shelling had faded, but locals assured me that clashes between opposition and regime forces continued, albeit sporadically, in the city’s outlying suburbs. There were fewer checkpoints in downtown Damascus, although the presence of the regime’s armed, plainclothed security officers and Shabiha militiamen was still prevalent.
Compared with the urban warfare that occurred here after the assassination of some of the regime’s top officials in July, and the street-to-street battles that are currently tearing Aleppo apart, the regime maintained the outward appearance of control in Damascus. They had won the battle of Damascus after having battered many opposition strongholds into submission throughout the month of August. But there was foreboding among the citizens.
“It’s been quiet the last few days,” said Abu Nour, a household-supplies shopkeeper in the Damascus neighborhood of Rawda, as I passed his shop during a walk around the capital a day after I arrived into the war-ravaged country early last week.
“It feels nice to have some peace, but it’s also worrying,” he continued. “God help us with what’s coming next.”
Indeed, many of the residents of Damascus I spoke to at the beginning of my visit remarked, with contented trepidation, about the apparent normalcy that was returning to the capital after weeks of anxiety and fear.
Syrians have learned to anticipate the coming of bad happenings before they arrive after a year and a half of oscillating levels of violence and point-scoring between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army. True to prophecy, a massive explosion hit the regime’s military headquarters on Wednesday, Sept. 26, the day after I spoke with Abu Nour. The sound wave reverberated throughout the city, permeating homes with the acrid scent of smoke. A gunbattle followed.
One petrified middle-aged eyewitness living in the regime-controlled Amriyeh neighbourhood, close to the military’s headquarters, said she heard the sound of gunfire for hours all around her home. She couldn’t tell if there were FSA or opposition fighters shooting, but she saw army officers firing continuously in all directions.
“We had no idea where or what it was aiming at,” she said. “It felt like it was raining down on us. Our building’s gate came off its hinges from the explosion. When I looked out of my window, I could see black smoke coming out of the building and heard people on the top floor crying out for help and saw one man jump out the window.”
Those who hadn’t caught news of the bombing before leaving home for work soon became aware of an electric and dangerous energy in the city. There was a sudden multiplication of checkpoints manned by two or three regime soldiers, who stood in the middle of the street, stopping and searching cars and checking passengers' IDs. A wave of arrests ensued and roadblocks cut off the movement of traffic throughout the city, most notably in the traditionally regime-loyalist areas of Malki and Abu Rumaneh, where many government officials and army personnel live. Men trying to enter the city from the opposition-friendly suburbs were forced to turn around and return home.
Once again, Damascus entered a ghost-like trance of stillness and foreboding. As news of the deeply penetrative hit by opposition forces on the regime’s military headquarters spread, so too did the anticipation that a new wave of punitive action by the army against known opposition areas would soon follow.
In a sign of the normalization of violence in the country, residents went about their business as usual the following day. Notwithstanding the shorter-than-usual opening hours, residents milled about in the shopping districts of Shaalan and Hamra, and drank tea and smoked shisha in the many outdoor cafes in Souq Saroouja.
“We’re used to this … these days, if you hear an explosion or see some smoke, you just walk back ten meters and continue on your way,” I overheard an employee at the Passport and Immigration Department saying on the day of the explosion.
The significance of the operation — the fourth of its kind in September, including a bus carrying shabiha (regime-loyalist thugs) — is indisputable. It tells of the widely acknowledged opposition sleeper cells within the regime; it speaks of a ramped-up form of special operations by the FSA and confirms the general feeling on the streets that Damascus’ day of reckoning is fast approaching.
But, as expected, regime forces reignited a retributive assault on practically all of the capital’s surrounding suburban districts in the days following the attack. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 300 people were killed in a single day on the same Wednesday the military headquarters were bombed. Footage posted on YouTube aired on international news networks showed entire buildings in Qaboon being felled by what appeared to be detonating explosives following the regime’s capture of an FSA fighter living in one of the apartments there.
“Qaboon? What Qaboon? It’s all rubble now,” said Abu Ahmed, a taxi driver from Masakin Berzeh. In Qudseyah, home to the residences of the army’s Republican Guard officers, as well as both Christian and Sunni residents, regime forces raided the area looking for activists and members of the FSA.
The districts of Berzeh, Douma, Joybar and Tadamon saw renewed assaults from army forces by air and on the ground; meanwhile, Quddseyah, in the northwest of the city, became newly embroiled in the conflict after military security launched a raid on Friday, Sept. 28 to smoke out members of the FSA there.
“The army were going round door to door in Qudseyah searching for young men … they went to my cousin’s house and took away her husband, who is neither an activist or part of the FSA … two days later, his body was found lying dead on the street,” Susan, a Sunni mother of four living in an Alawite district in Damascus, told me by phone.
Residents expect a bloody offensive by regime forces in the days and weeks ahead.
“Both the army and the FSA are on extremely high alert right now and both are preparing themselves for a big showdown on the streets … God help us, I don’t know where we are going to reach but there’s no turning back now,” one member of the opposition Local Coordinating Committees told me as he was preparing to flee the country.
“I wish I could stay and continue helping the revolution, but I don’t want to die and I don’t want to kill,” he said as he zipped up his small suitcase and bid his family farewell.
“So far, I’ve managed to stay below the regime’s radar, but even my commanders have told me to go before the regime catches me.”
Layla M. is a writer in Damascus.