x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Syria's rebels defy Assad's claim of victory in Damascus

Despite regime's insistence that it is back in control, shelling and gunfights continue and residents fear the worst has yet to come.

A Free Syrian Army fighter readies a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the Salah Al Din neighbourhood of central Aleppo. A full-scale assault on Syria's commercial heartland seems likely by a regime force of 20,000 soldiers, backed by tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and attack jets.
A Free Syrian Army fighter readies a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the Salah Al Din neighbourhood of central Aleppo. A full-scale assault on Syria's commercial heartland seems likely by a regime force of 20,000 soldiers, backed by tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and attack jets.

Damascus // Syria's regime has declared triumph over rebels in Damascus but the atmosphere in the capital is thick with foreboding, not victory.

Tanks remain in the streets, gunshots and shellfire routinely split the air and residents stockpile food and water in expectation that the worst has yet to come.

In Aleppo, government troops and the insurgent Free Syrian Army clashed again yesterday, and a full-scale assault on Syria's commercial heartland seems likely soon by a regime force of 20,000 soldiers, backed by tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and attack jets.

The escalating battle in Aleppo comes as Syria's military announced conditions in the capital to be "excellent and stable" having finally regained control over all neighbourhoods in Damascus, after a short-lived rebel offensive last month.

But a few hours after that claim was made, by an army officer in the district of Tadmun after insurgents had withdrawn under fire on Saturday, mortar shells again started to crash into parts of the capital.

There have since been raids by security forces, new roadblocks thrown up and street gunfights in central neighbourhoods and outlying suburbs, each rifle shot a signal that while a chapter of the battle for Damascus may have closed, the struggle for the city has far from been concluded.

"The Free Syrian Army hasn't gone. It will be back. We all know that," said a middle-class sales manager, on his once-a-week commute to the office - there is not enough trade nowadays to require any more time there - slowed by an army checkpoint on the now desolate main motorway in from the city's southern suburbs.

Three tanks sit hunched on road side as it passes through the district of Nahar Aisha, their main guns aimed low enough to give everyone passing a chance to look into the wide black mouth of one of the barrels.

Evidence of the destruction these weapons are capable of has been blasted into the surrounding landscape.

There is a hole big enough for a child to walk through punched in the side of a mosque, and smaller, fist-sized openings stitched by heavy machineguns through the ramshackle cinder-block homes that line the motorway.

Near by are an uprooted tree and the crumpled metal and concrete of what were once blocks of flats, shops and warehouses.

Building facades are dyed black from fire and smoke, windows shattered.

Nahar Aisha's busy covered market, once overwhelmed with locals searching for cheap fresh vegetables, is all but deserted, watched over by soldiers in sandbagged fighting positions.

"It's over now in Damascus and it will soon be over in Aleppo, the terrorists are defeated. They're finished," said a supporter of the president, Bashar Al Assad.

He pointed to the shell hole in one of Nahar Aisha's damaged mosques as a warning of what would happen if outgunned rebels and residents again dared take on the authorities' heavily armed forces.

"There were terrorists in the mosque, and look what happened to them," he said. "They got what they deserve. Some people only understand force. They understand being hit with a big stick."

Opposition graffiti vowing to topple the regime has been painted over, replaced with posters of Mr Al Assad and slogans proclaiming the Syrian president "alone to be enough". A year ago his backers would write or sing that God, Syria and Bashar were all they needed, but the first two clauses are now often dropped.

Wealthy central Damascus was calm - "there's nothing going on here" - the regime supporter said, ignoring the sound of a mortar exploding close enough to make windows vibrate.

Life in Damascus and its suburbs has certainly not stopped. Many, though far from all, shops remain open. People are in the streets, the lucky - principally government employees - still have jobs to go to. In some areas at least, children eat ice cream cones, play football and ride bicycles even after dark.

But life has shifted to a new, fearful pace, and is tarred with unease.

Drivers speed along the growing list of roads considered to be dangerous, places they might get caught in crossfire, bombings or shelling.

"There were soldiers lying on the floor trying to avoid being shot by a sniper when I went past a checkpoint yesterday," said a resident of Eastern Damascus.

He and others try to hurry through the army's network of gateways, hoping they will not be there when, inevitably, the government soldiers come under rebel attack, or themselves launch an offensive against rebels.

Fear is not limited to the widespread violence that rights groups say has killed more than 20,000 people since last March, when the uprising began. Severe poverty and, with it, crime is also rising, Damascus residents say.

"There are thousands of desperate people in this city who have not had a job or earned a penny for more than a year. They are poor, they are hungry and they need money. Of course they should steal. They must to feed their children," said a businessman involved in various petty black-market trading operations.

He has just had a new electronic safe for valuables installed in his home, a heavy wood front door put into the entrance corridor and a metal security gate fixed outside.

With banks no longer trusted - deposits in some, especially hard-currency accounts, have effectively been frozen - cash is widely kept in homes and, anecdotally, break-ins are on the increase.

Other families say they have learnt lessons from the recent rebel uprising and regime counter-offensive that pushed tens of thousands to flee embattled neighbourhoods for safer areas. Roads were closed and food and fuel shortages quickly developed.

"We keep a bag packed now with essentials in it, and enough emergency fuel to be able to drive out of here. We're ready to leave at any time with an hour's notice. We'll just go," said a father of two with relatives in Qaboun, a heavily hit area in north-eastern Damascus.

Two members of his extended family were killed in the July counter attacks after they elected to stay in their home rather than run for safety.

No one in Damascus seems to be working on the assumption that the crisis they are facing is coming to an end, despite government assurances that calm has been restored.

"The war still hasn't even started yet," said the sales manager, who has been stockpiling emergency food and water supplies in the certainty that his family will be confined to their home when serious fighting re-erupts.

"This crisis isn't over, it's still only just beginning," he said.