DAMASCUS— Pro-regime community defense groups are springing up in Damascus, as areas with large populations of religious or other minorities seek to repel a conflict lapping ever closer to them.
A bomb attack Sunday on the mainly Christian old city neighborhood of Bab Touma hammered home the threat in the capital’s historic heart, where residents say local vigilantes now work in tandem with regime forces.
The accumulation in civilian hands of guns, ranging from hunting rifles to assault weapons from official stocks, shows the potential for the battle between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and opposition groups to degenerate further into a militia-based war.
“Because there is no army here, we are keeping the place safe,” said Abu Nasif, leader of a community defense group stationed on a street corner in the old city – a walkie-talkie beside him. One of his comrades, known as Ammar, added: “Whoever is not from this street and causes trouble will be punished.”
Thirteen people died in Sunday’s car bombing outside Bab Touma police station, the first large-scale assault in the capital’s renowned old city, according to Syrian state media.
The attack followed violence in other Damascus areas with large minority populations. In the Druze and Christian-dominated district of Jaramana, tit-for-tat killings in recent months between local vigilantes and raiders from elsewhere have left residents braced to defend themselves by any means necessary.
“What hunts a bird can hunt a man,” said a young Jaramana man named Wasim, brandishing a hunting rifle. “In 10 years, we are going to be like Sierra Leone – a country with armed conflict and forgotten from the map.”
While the regime’s notorious shabbiha civilian militias have long worked alongside official security forces, the armed community protection groups in the capital are comprised in good part of ordinary citizens aware they could be targeted or embroiled in violence by default.
Much of Syria is a political and religious patchwork in which anti-Assad locales populated mainly by members of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority lie next to communities of other faiths, such as Shia, Christians and Druze. Many of these support Assad, because they see his membership of the minority Alawite Shia sect as a sign that he is a protector of all religious minorities.
In Bab Touma, soldiers have been posted next to the ruined old stone gate in the area’s historic square, but rely on vigilantes to patrol inside, say residents.
“I am very happy that these groups did a deal with the government,” said one local businessman. “Nearby there are a lot of rebels and they could be here in 10 minutes if they wanted to cause trouble.”
A short walk away, through the old city’s cramped thoroughfares, community defense posses could be seen gathered on street corners not far from the city’s Bab Sharqi gateway.
Nasif’s group was stationed next to a doorway topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary, where a man toyed with a rifle, as friends seated around him laughed.
His men insisted they had no guns apart from the one for emergencies, owned by a soldier who lived locally. The group presented their protection work as an extension of the nightly gatherings they had held as old friends for years.
“Though the other media are telling of killing, dying and blood in Syria, here you can see us drinking tea and enjoying life,” Nasif said.
But one Damascene Christian who has relatives in the old city suggested that local defense there was more organized and better armed than Nasif described. Her family said regime forces had offered residents rifles and a handful of bullets each, on condition they signed for the weapons and reported back when and how they used them.
“A lot of people refused them, but some people said yes,” she said.
While Nasif and his comrades say they are not warriors for Assad or sectarianism, they – like a growing number of Syrians on both sides – now see this conflict as existential, and are primed to defend their place, whatever it takes.
As Nasif put it: “We want to live here - and we want to die here, too.”