Middle East

Syria crisis: Defiance and resolve in war-torn Damascus

I sleep with the window open, and wake up in the morning to the sound of explosions.

I lie in my room on the seventh floor of a hotel in central Damascus, trying to work out from the soundtrack of the dawn what is happening outside before I take a look.

This last week the morning crumps and thumps have not been continuous, but they do not let up.

Sometimes there are long gaps, then an intensive few hours. The rebels have captured some heavy weapons, but most of the firepower powerful enough to create blasts that echo round the city is controlled by the regime.

When the sky is blue, there are more great rolling booms, presumably because it is easier to use air power on a clear day.

If the sound of heavy machine-gunfire is mixed in with the explosions, it is a sign that clashes between men on the ground are happening, within a few miles of the hotel.

One side of Damascus is skirted by steep rocky hills, and the sound reverberates off the crags and back down into the city. Smoke sometimes comes up from the fires that get started, and hangs over parts of the capital.

'Psychological warfare'

It has been going on long enough now for people in the regime's hub in central Damascus to be quite casual about the violent accompaniment to the day.

It is easier to get used to outgoing fire when very little comes back in the opposite direction.

The other day I was waiting for a lift at the foreign ministry, glanced out of the window and saw a black mushroom cloud from an air strike rising above some blocks of flats perhaps a mile or so away. The guards near me barely seemed to notice the smoke spiralling into the sky.

I asked Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad whether the fact that the war had come with such force to Damascus meant the regime of Bashar al-Assad, after more than 40 years, and two presidents - father and son - was in its last days.

A Syrian army soldier flashes the V-sign for victory as he stands close to tanks in Aleppo. Photo: November 2012
The government says its soldiers will be victorious

Mr Mekdad denied there was even a real war in the capital, let alone any suggestion that Mr Assad might step down.

"Some people are speaking about this thing, but I think this is funny, and this is only psychological warfare.

"The government is strong, the Syrian army is strong, the Syrian people are still rallying behind President Assad. That's why President Assad and the political system are still surviving and they will still survive."

And at another ministry the official I was meeting was amused when she saw me react to the sound of a low-flying warplane.

"Don't worry, we're used to it," she smiled.

Unprecedented pressure

But however calm official Damascus wants to be about what is happening, the fact is that the war being waged in the capital is a sign that the regime faces a severe challenge.

President Assad has never been under so much pressure: from armed rebels at home and hostile foreign powers abroad.

Part of what keeps him going is the support he gets from Iran and the diplomatic cover that Russia and China provide.

The other vital ingredient in the regime's staying power is that it has real support among Syria's minority communities.

The president's bedrock is his own Alawite sect, but he has some support from some Christians, Druze and Kurds, among others.

In Mezze District 86, an Alawite stronghold where many of the men carry guns for the regime, banners are strung across the narrow, steep streets, celebrating the men of the neighbourhood who have died fighting for the president.

One of them, Fadi Hamoud, worked for Air Force Intelligence, the most feared security service in the country.

His mother, Amal Wasi, said he was a good man who once had found an envelope of money and would not rest until it had been returned to the man who had lost it.

His widow, Iba, held one of her two small children and said his sacrifice was worth it. All Syrians should be prepared to die for their country, she said, and for the president who was doing all he could to hold the nation together against terrorists supported by Europe.

Fadi Hamoud was one of eight brothers. Five were soldiers. The others were too young and waited for their time to join up.

Rebellious suburb

I slipped out of the hotel with two colleagues to get a little closer to the places that are being hit by the daily pounding.

We were heading for a rendezvous with contacts who had promised to get us into Douma, the Damascus suburb that has been fully engaged in the uprisings since it began, and while it has moved through all its phases, from demonstrations calling for reform to an all-out shooting war.

The traffic in the city centre was solid, the drivers tooting and inching along, frustration building.

The jams are happening because many roads are closed as part of extra security measures, funnelling the cars into roadblocks.

Central Damascus feels the weight of the war, but it is functioning.

People with jobs go to them, and children go to school, bright-eyed and heaving bags of books, girls with ribbons in their hair and boys missing the football season, which is suspended.

Fuel is getting more expensive, there are queues for bread and the war is turning some lives upside down and ending others.

But ever since I saw a man selling tomatoes a few blocks away from a street battle during my first war in El Salvador 23 years ago, I have realised that humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient.

If it were not for the traffic and the roadblocks, it would take around 20 minutes to drive to Douma from the centre of Damascus.

You drive north, past a giant, heroic mural of the first President Assad, done in the Arab Baath party's version of socialist realism, and a line of car showrooms.

When I was here last, in January, also trying to sneak past the roadblocks to get into Douma, there were still plate glass windows showing off lines of shining new cars.

Now the cars have gone and most of the windows are broken.

Buildings on either side of the road have been shelled then bulldozed flat, to deny the armed rebels cover to attack either the highway, which is the highly strategic main road north, or a prominent local landmark - a big building belonging to Air Force Intelligence.

Douma was reachable down the same muddy farm track we used last winter.

But what is inside is very different.

In January, armed rebels had only just appeared on the streets. Now they have set up their own command and administration.

At the start of the year the fighters were armed with hunting rifles and shotguns as well as Kalashnikov assault rifles. Now the dominant force in Douma is Liwa al-Islam, a group of fighters who the regime say are Jihadist extremists.

The men inside Douma denied that was true. Most of them were bearded, some wore headbands embroidered with the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith.

"We may be religious but we're not al-Qaeda," one of the commanders said.

Liwa al-Islam fighters in Damascus suburbs
The morale among rebel fighters in Douma is high

He was dismissive about the Nusra Front, a group of fighters with a jihadist ideology that the US is moving towards listing as a terrorist organisation.

"They're like al-Qaeda," the fighter said. "We're not."

Liwa al-Islam have a military spokesman in Douma, a man calling himself Col Islam, who says he was in the Syrian army until he defected.

Armed rebels claim to control around a third of the area of Damascus and its suburbs, and they showed me evidence in Douma that they were capturing more ground.

The regime says the rebels have only "pockets" of the city under their control.

We drove into a section of the suburb that the rebels said they seized around four weeks ago.

A burnt-out tank and bullet-riddled sandbags mark what were once regime military checkpoints.

Col Islam said they had destroyed 24 checkpoints as they drove the Syrian army back. Many soldiers ran away, he said.

As for the rest, he said: "We killed all of them. They were fighting us, and they had killed many civilians in Syria."

Devastated town

Douma has been devastated by air strikes and shelling. Almost every structure has some damage. Buildings and - in some places - entire streets are rubble.

Early in the morning the place looked to be empty of civilians.

Many people from Douma have fled. But, slowly, young families as well as old people with nowhere else to go emerged - perhaps it was a foggy day which meant fewer airstrikes.

Even so, loud explosions sounded uncomfortably close.

A child playing outside the entrance to a block of flats giggled. One of my colleagues asked Col Islam if the fire was going out or coming in.

"Coming in!" he said cheerfully. The morale among the fighters in Douma was high. The colonel carried an M4, a modern American assault rifle with a telescopic sight.

With us were a group of his men armed with Kalashnikovs, a heavy machinegun and a rocket propelled grenade launcher.

They took us to a big army base, which they said they had captured from the army during the fighting four weeks ago.

An unexploded rocket from an air strike was buried in a lorry park.

I turned down Col Islam's offer to show off notoriously unstable unexploded submunitions from a cluster bomb, which he said were close by.

Several hundred recruits stamped across a parade ground still decorated with defaced portraits of President Assad and his father.

They shouted "Allahu Akbar!" in unison every time they came to attention, and ran through a repertoire of revolutionary slogans.

Their chanting was better than their marching, but the chief trainer said they would be soldiers inside a month.

He had a long beard with the moustache cut short in the Islamist Salafist style, and said he had been a lieutenant in the Syrian Army's special forces until he defected.

Two choices

Getting wounded is an uncomfortable prospect for any soldier.

The regime's men have the Tishreen Military Hospital, a big modern facility, that smells of antiseptic and reeks of sadness.

The rebels say that they have only one operating theatre, and say the Syrian army has targeted all the clinics and hospitals in the area they control.

Liwa al-Islam fighters have set up clinics in locations they try to keep secret, which means they are not marked with the Red Crescent.

At one, in what seemed to be somebody's weekend house, with a swimming pool with a foot of green water in it, a badly wounded man was being treated.

A rocket had blown off both his feet. None of the three medics there was a qualified doctor. All were dentists.

They had patched up his stumps, and he groaned and sometimes screamed with pain as they irrigated the raw, roughly sewn wounds with antiseptic.

Syria has two choices. The first, and least likely, is a political deal between all the warring parties. It is hard to see, as things stand, how that can happen.

If it cannot, then Syria faces a long civil war. That prospect is full of danger, not just for the Syrian people, but for the whole Middle East.

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