Reuters reports: As darkness descended over Damascus last Saturday, few of its 1.7 million residents could have had any inkling that a decisive battle to wrest the city from the grasp of President Bashar al-Assad was about to begin.
Insurgents gave the operation a name that reflected their hopes of a successful surprise attack on a city long regarded as an impregnable fortress for the Assad family: “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake”.
“There is no going back,” Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for the joint command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Reuters after the fighting had broken out. “We have started the operation to liberate Damascus.”
The operation, still under way, has come closer to toppling Assad than anything else in the 16-month uprising against his rule. By nightfall on Friday, six days after it began, rebels had seized control of border crossings and were battling loyalist troops on the streets of Damascus.
The attempt to seize the lair of a man whose father was known as “The Lion of Damascus” had been long in the planning, Saadeddine said. It involved 2,500 fighters who had infiltrated the ancient city’s suburbs a week earlier, he said.
Insurgents were especially redeployed from other parts of the country for the task, another FSA officer said separately.
The rebels struck first in the city’s southern Hajar al-Aswad district, engaging in sustained battles with government troops who must have wondered what had hit them.
The following day, July 15, the scale of the rebels’ ambition became clear. That day, a Sunday, a powerful blast tore through a bus in Damascus carrying security forces personnel, wounding many, and fighting spread to three other city districts.
Residents sympathetic to the insurgents burned tires to distract government troops. Government armored vehicles poured into southern Damascus amid reports that the road to the airport had been closed.
Residents of one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities corroborated those accounts described the fighting as the fiercest to touch the capital yet since the uprising began in provincial towns 16 months ago.
Assad had – until then – largely succeeded in shielding his capital and its residents from the extreme violence that has convulsed the rest of the country while he battled to maintain his family’s 42-year grip on power.
Even as his tanks and artillery laid waste to parts of other cities, traffic in Damascus circulated, shops and markets kept open, and students continued to study.
But as black smoke rose above Damascus last Sunday and the clatter of machinegun fire rang out – interspersed with the sound of explosions – that illusion of normality was shattered. [Continue reading…]