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With influx of refugees, Syrian rebellion reaches deeper into heart of Damascus

By Special Correspondent,

DAMASCUS — The revolution that has engulfed much of Syria in bloodshed is now encroaching on the capital in ways that challenge long-held assumptions about President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power even in the city presumed to be his stronghold.

Compared with places such as Homs, Hama and Deir al-Zour, where bombardments and battles are commonplace, Damascus is still relatively calm. No longer, however, can the government boast that the capital is an oasis of tranquility or that a silent majority of its residents are loyal to the regime.

The city now feels pregnant with rage, and ready to explode.

Anti-regime graffiti are scribbled on the walls in almost every neighborhood. At night, the sound of shelling in nearby suburbs that have fallen under rebel control echoes through the streets, disturbing the sleep of rich and poor alike. Flying — or tayara — protests, in which small groups stage sudden and swift demonstrations, are increasing even in some of the more upmarket neighborhoods of the city. And recent strikes by merchants of the renowned Damascus souks have eroded perceptions that they still support the government.

On Thursday, the violence came even closer, with government forces firing shells into fields adjoining the long-restive neighborhood of Kafr Souseh on the southeastern edge of the city, sending plumes of smoke rising into the sky and sounds of explosions reverberating through the streets.

One reason for the shifting mood is the influx of people who have flooded into Damascus in recent months, seeking refuge from the fighting elsewhere in the country. The United Nations estimates the overall number of displaced people in Syria at 500,000, and although no one knows for sure how many of those have made their way to the capital, the city’s population has tangibly swelled, with families crowding into hotel rooms, renting cheap apartments and descending on the homes of relatives.

They have brought with them stories of pain and injustice, infecting Damascenes with some of the anger that has sustained the uprising elsewhere for about 16 months.

“The presence of the refugees made us live the tragedy, not only hear about it or read about it as if in a book,” said Samer, 30, a Damascus-based activist who took in a family of 10 from the Bayadeh area of Homs in March. One of them, a woman, wept as she showed him photographs of her son stored on her cellphone, he recalled. The son had been torn apart by shellfire in Homs.

“I was speechless and felt that it was me who wanted help at that moment,” said Samer, who, like others interviewed for this article, requested that he be identified only by his first name because he fears for his safety.

Most of those seeking sanctuary are women and children whose husbands and fathers have been killed or have remained behind to fight or to protect their property.

But activists have come, too, along with their enthusiasm for staging the kind of anti-government demonstrations that have so far taken place only on a limited scale in the capital.

“I came to Damascus because I want to protest,” said Ahmad, an activist displaced from the besieged Khalidyeh neighborhood of Homs, which comes under near-daily bombardment by government troops seeking to dislodge the rebels who control it. “I miss protesting,” he said.

Ahmad used to own a clothes shop, but he has lost his livelihood and his home in the uprising. Since June 20, he has been living with his family in the southern neighborhood of Sitt Zeinab, alongside an estimated 7,000 former residents of Homs. He spends his time mingling with local residents, sharing his experiences of the revolt in Homs and encouraging them to organize protests.

Merchant-class discontent

There are also other indications that discontent is growing among native Damascenes, notably the Sunni merchant classes whose silence has long been interpreted as tacit support for the Assad regime. The May 25 massacre of at least 108 people in the village of Houla, outside Homs, marked a turning point, triggering the first concerted display of defiance by the merchants of the Damascus souks, the storied bazaars in the city center that are the hub of the capital’s commercial life.

Three days after the killings, the merchants closed their stores in protest, responding to a call by activist groups. Several shop owners said, however, that the strike followed a visit to the souk by two men who threatened to burn the shops of those who did not comply with the call. Nonetheless, the shop owners said they were relieved to be given an excuse to express their anger, as well as an excuse to offer the security forces when they roamed through the souks trying to force the merchants to reopen.

“We were actually hoping for that to happen,” a store owner said, referring to the strike.

A second strike, last weekend, was more widespread, affecting several Damascus neighborhoods as well as the souks. The authorities tried to prevent it, sending out text messages urging people not to participate, then dispatching security forces armed with machine guns and hammers to force open the shutters of those who did.

Shop owners clustered near their stalls, ready to open them quickly when the security forces appeared.

Clashes in the capital

Still, Damascus has not witnessed the kind of large-scale protests that convulsed many other Syrian cities in the earliest days of the revolt. Many activists attribute this to the large minority population in Damascus, notably of Christians and Shiite-affiliated Alawites, many of whom still support the regime and fear the growing influence of what is perceived as a mostly Sunni uprising.

However, as city dwellers with relatively high living standards, there is also a sense that even those Damascenes unhappy with the regime are not willing to endure the levels of violence witnessed in those parts of the country that are in open revolt.

Whether they will have much choice is in question. A string of bombings in recent months has spilled blood on the capital’s streets. And the rebel Free Syrian Army is increasingly making its presence felt.

Several clashes between the rebels and the government forces have been reported in Kafr Souseh, which is home to some of the capital’s fanciest shopping malls and key security headquarters. The shelling there Thursday seemed only to signal the extent to which parts of the neighborhood have begun slipping out of government control.

Last week, a new Free Syrian Army battalion announced its formation in a video posted on YouTube. Calling itself the Miqdad Ben Amro battalion, the group of about 50 armed and masked men said it had been formed to fight in the city center. The regime, said the statement read out on the video, “knows, as everyone knows, that its end will come in Damascus.”

This story was reported by a Washington Post special correspondent in Damascus whose name is being withheld for security reasons. Liz Sly in Antakya, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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