In Damascus, losing faith in Assad

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the French occupied Syria from 1918 to 1936. The French occupation lasted from 1920 to 1946. The story has been updated.

July 27, 2012

Even as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-
Assad reassert control over much of Damascus, residents of the capital say they feel increasingly distant from the government they have long supported and are confident that it will eventually fall.

A major assault last week by Assad’s forces pushed rebel fighters from much of Damascus, and heavy shelling, day and night, has continued here this week, unsettling a city that had been isolated from the violence seen elsewhere in the country during the 16-month uprising.

On the streets of Damascus, there are thick plumes of smoke rising from rubble, the sounds of helicopter gunships in the air and long lines to buy bread. In the past week, residents who had been sharing their homes with Syrians who fled to the capital to escape the violence have been forced to flee themselves. More than a million people have been displaced by the fighting in Syria, according to data from the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

“We have feelings of hatred towards the regime now which will never get washed away,” said a 62-year-old man who owns four houses in the capital but thinks none of them is safe enough to stay in. Like others, he did not give his name because he was concerned about the possible consequences.

Some Damascus residents who have returned to their homes have been forced to confront the deadly results of the violence.

In the Midan neighborhood, where government forces took control after nearly a week of heavy fighting, “two whole families were slaughtered” in a public square, said a 30-year-old resident. Homes were demolished, shops looted and his house was broken into by security forces who went door-to-door after the fighting, the man said. “We can’t stay in Midan. There is no life anymore.”

The 30-year-old said he worked as a government servant and had been paid to break up anti-Assad protests by shocking demonstrators with electric prods. But he said any loyalty he felt to the government has disappeared. “How can you work for a government which shelled and destroyed your neighborhood?” he said.

These days, discussions of politics are routine, and many, especially the city’s older residents, are comparing Assad’s current tactics with those of the French occupation of Syria, from 1920 to 1946. Some here say the old occupiers showed more mercy.

The regime “ is like Nero who burned Rome,” said a retired civil servant and father of four.

The rebel Free Syrian Army enjoys strong support in many parts of the capital, including in the southern part of the city and the northern district of Barzeh. Fighters are cheered by young people when they enter restive areas, and residents of Midan said their neighbors gave them food and water as they passed through.

But as the rebel fighters have come and gone, people here say they feel abandoned by the rest of the world.

“The Syrian people are facing the tragedy on their own,” said the 62-year-old, noting that even human rights groups have stayed away. “It is shame on the entire international community to witness the ongoing massacres [in Syria] and do nothing.”

With no outside intervention likely, people have taken security into their own hands. Young men armed with long sticks and knives are often seen outside their homes through the night, guarding their neighborhoods from possible attacks by the pro-government shabiha militia.

As more and more Syrians experience the violence, people here say it is becoming increasingly difficult for Assad and his government to carry on, though they acknowledge it could take months for the opposition to prevail.

“The fall of the regime is inevitable,” said the 62-year-old, who worked as a civil servant for more than 30 years. “It cannot continue.”

This story was reported by a Washington Post special correspondent in Damascus whose name is being withheld for security reasons.

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