Fighting in Damascus: Bullets Through the Heart
By: Muhammad Saleh
Published Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Damascus - The sound of gunfire in the heart of the capital is unfamiliar to Damascenes. The capital had been spared the military operations underway elsewhere in the country, with life continuing more or less as normal, until Sunday.
It began in the Palestinian refugee camps south of the city, where a funeral for fallen victims was followed by an outbreak of clashes between the security forces and armed men. The army responded the following day by shelling sites in the camp and the adjoining al-Tadamon neighborhood, in a barrage that could be heard in many parts of capital. Panic ensued in the vicinity, prompting local residents to flee their homes in large numbers.
Clashes meanwhile also broke out in the districts of Kfar Sousa and al-Midan. The security forces carried out raids in Qasr Atkeh and Yaghmud. The main highway linking the capital to Daraa and Jordan was blocked. Gunfire was heard for the first time in the Old City, prompting traders in the commercial center to close down their shops. The same happened in the northern district of al-Muhajireen, far from the main flashpoints and close to the presidential palace.
The exodus of residents from affected areas continued on Monday, amid further clashes in Kfar Sousa and Midan, as well as the Nahr Aisha neighborhood.
Eyewitnesses gave conflicting accounts of how the escalation began.
Rumors had been circulated by local activists that deserters from the army were poised to launch a big armed campaign in the capital, though no decision had apparently yet been taken on precisely when “zero hour” – as it was known – would be.
Conversely, Ali, a teacher in his thirties from Tadamon, said residents of his district were urged to leave by activists who told them that the regime was poised to start an assault against deserters and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in the district. The sound of shells exploding then began rocking the neighborhood, and many residents escaped towards the Yarmouk refugee camp to the south and other safer adjoining areas.
Ali said he expected the clashes to be short-lived, noting there had been no previous security incidents or disturbances to speak of in the district, where both supporters and opponents of the regime live. He said he had heard a rumor that a massacre was being planned against the residents who stayed behind, but dismissed it as groundless.
Muhammad, a young man from Midan, said fighting on an unprecedented scale broke out in the neighborhood, particularly in the warren of interconnected alleyways in the old part of the district, where the security forces found it hard to operate.
He said there were skirmishes between groups of FSA fighters, who had appeared in the area for the first time, and security men, and that dozens of snipers had deployed on rooftops, indicating they were preparing for a long battle. He said local residents stayed indoors, while shops and businesses closed down, and people were expecting the security situation to deteriorate further with the advent of Ramadan.
Residents of the Nahr Aisha area near the Damascus-Daraa highway said they had seen tanks and armored vehicles heading along it towards the capital, and that repeated attempts had been made to block the road.
Kfar Sousa, southeast of the city center, was another flashpoint.
The modern northern part of the district, known as Tanzeem Kfar Sousa, where a number of government departments and security agencies have their headquarters, has been quiet. Tight security measures have been in force since the massive explosion which targeted a military intelligence compound there in January.
But one resident said the old neighborhoods of Kfar Sousa and an outlying area of orchards to the south which gives on to farmland and the approaches to the town of Daraya have been subject to shelling since last Thursday. He said security forces had also launched successive raids into the district to arrest activists, dozens of whom had been detained.
He noted that Kfar Sousa had in the past witnessed sizeable anti-regime protests, at some of which FSA fighters had appeared alongside demonstrators.
Omar, who lives in one of the Palestinian camps, said he feared parts of Damascus might be put through the same experience as the Baba Amr district of Homs or the towns of Douma or Zabadani, where army shelling to root out opposition fighters caused massive devastation before they beat a tactical retreat.
He said the lightly armed opposition fighters who had emerged in the capital seemed to be in no position to take on the army. “As far as we can see, they have no military planning or knowledge of the situation on the ground,” he said. “They’re relying on zeal, but that can’t bring down a regime that has a cohesive army and can deploy massive firepower against fighters who mostly just have rifles and submachine guns.”
He said he doubted that a “zero hour” offensive was on the cards, adding that rumors could merely be “psychological warfare” – though he said they had left many people feeling alarmed.
He noted that opposition attempts to instigate widespread protests in the capital had been unsuccessful in the past, and Damascenes were no more likely to rise against the regime now. “It would be a mistake to expect such a thing, and to count on it as part of the ‘zero hour’ plan would just make things worse.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.