Patrick Cockburn writes: Damascus feels like a city expecting the worst to happen and seeing no way to avoid it. War is spreading across the country and is unlikely to spare the capital. Rebels speak of stepping up attacks in the city and could easily do so in the next few weeks.
I spent the last week in Damascus and the atmosphere reminds me of Beirut in 1975 at the start of the 15-year civil war. Again and again in conversations, people realistically laid out for me the nasty things that are all too likely to happen, but few were able to produce plausible ideas on how disaster might be averted.
“I wish people abroad would stop talking about a civil war starting here because it is still the people against the government,” said one committed member of the opposition as we sat in a café in Damascus (everybody I spoke to has to be nameless, for obvious reasons). She believed that it was only the heavy presence of the security forces that were suppressing mass popular protest in the days after the Houla massacre.
She may have been right, but in practice not a lot was happening. There was less traffic on the streets and foreign TV stations made much play of YouTube postings showing merchants shutting their shops in protest at the Houla slaughter. But, driving around Damascus, the strike’s success was difficult to judge since so many shops and restaurants are shut anyway because of the lack of tourists and the impact of sanctions.
The rebels could probably start a campaign of bombings and selective assassinations fairly easily in Damascus. This is not a sign that they are militarily strong, but it would be easy for a movement lacking arms and experienced fighters to spread instability by these means. The rebels can do this using as bases strongholds in and around the city such as Douma, which they more or less control.
None of this is good news for the people of Damascus since government retaliation and collective punishments are likely to be savage and sustained. It is depressing that Damascus, one of the more beautiful cities in the world, is on the edge of becoming the victim of the same sort of hatred, fear and destruction that have convulsed Beirut, Baghdad and Belfast over the past 50 years.
Sectarianism is deepening. Christians are fearful and are all too aware of what happened to their co-religionists in Iraq after 2003. Opposition members in Damascus often blandly blame the rise in sectarian fears on the authorities. “The government is just trying to frighten people,” said one Christian human rights activist. “People here have never had a problem with each other.” He pointed out that the French had tried to secure their imperial rule by exploiting communal and religious differences, but they had failed. [Continue reading…]