x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Damascus in panic at prospect of US attack

A heavy sense of dread pervades Damascus, bags are packed and families get ready to flee as the West mulls military action against the Syrian regime.

Arab League representatives hold an extraordinary meeting at their Cairo headquarters to discuss the latest political and military crisis in Syria.
Arab League representatives hold an extraordinary meeting at their Cairo headquarters to discuss the latest political and military crisis in Syria.

DAMASCUS // A heavy sense of dread pervaded Damascus yesterday, as the West mulled military action after alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime.

Jihan, a young mother, said she was convinced the first United States strike on Syria would hit Mazze military airport near her Damascus home, and had already packed her family's bags, ready to flee.

"They'll hit Mazze, I'm sure. The target makes sense," Jihan said of the airport, which Bashar Al Assad uses to travel within Syria.

Mazze is guarded by the army's fearsome Fourth Division, which the Syrian president's brother Maher Al Assad commands, and is responsible for protecting Damascus and its outskirts against rebel advances.

Jihan, her husband and their two daughters on Monday moved in with relatives living closer to the centre of town and away from the airport.

Traffic in central Damascus, diminished since the outbreak of the 29-month civil war, has thinned conspicuously. People only ventured out for urgent business or to gather supplies.

"There are fewer people around," said Adel, who works at a bank. "My wife does not go to see her mum everyday anymore. She just goes straight home from work."

Mohammed, 35, speaking in the upmarket Abu Rumaneh neighbourhood in Damascus, said that "for three days rumours have been flying around".

He said: "My mother is terrified because we live near all the central government buildings, and they're a real target.".

Malek, an electrical goods salesman, appeared tense.

"Everyone is nervous after listening to John Kerry," he said, referring to comments by the US secretary of state that suggested a strike would go ahead if there was evidence the regime had used chemical weapons.

"On Al Arabiya TV, they're talking about striking Mazze and Damascus international airport," Malek said, his shop now deserted by customers.

Malek's sister, Mayada, said she had withdrawn all her money from the bank.

"I sent my wife to the market and she bought large amounts of meat, tomatoes, bread and pasta," Malek said. "She thinks we might have to stay barricaded in for a long while."

Food sellers in the market said they have felt the same sense of panic. "Lots of people come to stock up in the morning and after work," said Mohammed, who sells rice, olive oil and pasta at his stall.

But for Michel, an owner of a cosmetics shop who lives in the mostly Christian quarter of Tijara, rebel mortar fire on the centre of the capital was far worse than any air strike by the West.

"These mortar rounds are far scarier because they practically land on our heads."