As darkness descends on Damascus

The Daily Beast reports: In recent days, some seasoned members of the Syrian opposition have been watching the situation in Damascus with a sense of alarm. The heavily secured capital — once considered an untouchable stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s government — has spiraled into violence as rebels have penetrated deeper into the city. But the rebellion’s steady gains have lately been accompanied by a sense of dread. “This winter will be a terrible one in Damascus,” said a rebel coordinator who goes by the nickname Abu Jalal, who has been working with rebel groups in the capital. “God have mercy.”

Rebels and activists in the city fear that the government, pressed by their success, may be planning a brutal campaign to push back. “Things will be happening over the next few days in Damascus that will cause huge massacres on both sides,” said Ammar al-Wawi, a rebel spokesman and commander.

Those dire predictions came just before a massive car bombing in the suburb of Jaramana, which killed dozens of civilians yesterday. Then, on Thursday morning, Damascus citizens received more ominous news: Internet service across the country had been cut, and many phone lines were also down in Damascus. The capital, it seemed, had been cut off from the outside world. As activists, family members and journalists scrambled to make contact with people inside the city, a sense of alarm and confusion took hold. “It seems that Damascus is about to go crazy,” said an activist who goes by the nickname Jodi Chou, who is based in the Damascus neighborhood of Daraya, but who left yesterday for a short trip to Beirut.

Some analysts believe that an aggressive government offensive may indeed be underway in Damascus — something that could be seen as a sign of desperation on the part of the government. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, points out that the rebels have made a series of key gains around the capital in recent weeks, including the capture of a helicopter military base outside the city. Heavy fighting was also reported near the Damascus airport today, causing some major airlines to cancel flights. In light of these developments, Tabler said, the government may be feeling pressed to push back. “Losing Damascus would be a disaster,” he said. “They have to try to hold onto it, and the only way to do that is to reassert themselves. And we’re already starting to see that.”

As for the disrupted Internet and phone service, Tabler said the government may be trying to scramble rebel communications ahead of an offensive. “I think the regime is getting ready to take the gloves off,” he said.

The Washington Post reports: Whatever the cause of the blackout, it was clear that the remarkable window into the war offered by technology had dramatically narrowed for Syrians on both sides of the conflict and the many outsiders following the story. Observers said it signaled the beginning of a dangerous new phase after 20 months of escalating conflict.

“In some ways, it’s a Cyclops stabbing itself in the eye,” said Joshua M. Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “They’re turning the light out on themselves here, which is not good.”

The shutdown came amid scattered rebel gains Thursday and intensified fighting that shut down the Damascus airport. In Washington, meanwhile, officials indicated that the Obama administration was moving toward recognizing a newly formed opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

‘There will be panic’

The rising popularity of smartphones and the Syrian government’s sharp limits on the movements of independent journalists have made social media an especially vital source of information about the conflict. The abrupt loss of the technology has caused widespread fear, said Ammar Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Not everyone will have access” to news about the conflict, said Abdulhamid, who has close ties to Syria’s opposition. “There will be panic. There will be fear.”

Syrian rebel forces have many satellite phones. But the devices expose users to risk of detection by government forces, and there are not enough of the phones to keep millions of Syrians informed.

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