Elegant Damascus, besieged by both sides

Wed Feb 27, 2013 3:00pm EST
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DAMASCUS (Reuters) - In a city lived in for seven millennia, it may take more than two years of civil war to put a full stop to the genteel round of dinner parties and walks in the park for the affluent folk of downtown Damascus.

But from out in the grim suburbs, rebels incensed at their prosperous neighbors' passivity lob in more bombs and President Bashar al-Assad's forces make their presence ever more heavily felt around his stronghold, disrupting comfortable old routines and setting fear gnawing at Damascenes' cocoon of civilization.

Many feel trapped between an unloved authority in the form of the 43-year-old Assad dynasty and hungry revolutionaries at the gates, who resent the city's privileged lifestyle.

Though fighting has turned parts of the outer sprawl of the capital of more than 1.5 million into an urban battlefield, especially since major rebel advances last summer, and though some 70,000 Syrians have been killed since protests began two years ago, central areas of Damascus long remained untouched.

But that is changing as frontlines encroach and as troops and the shabbiha militias loyal to Assad reinforce the garrison around his power base. Noticeable too is how people who have fled homes in the suburbs have been camping in downtown parks.

Then last week three car bombs exploded in central Damascus, killing dozens. Hours later, mortars fell on the wealthiest district of Maliki, where dozens of high-ranking government officials and the prosperous merchant class live.

One landed next to the home of the foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, a few minutes walk from the private residence of the president himself. Another fell on a building formerly owned by Assad's uncle, Rifaat, now banished in exile. From the building, which houses top officials, hangs a portrait of the president.

Outgunned by forces dominated by Assad's Alawite minority, the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have made little headway of late in reaching the center. After the devastation suffered by the suburbs from rockets, rebel attacks on the city center are sparse in comparison.

But those living there see them as an outlet for mounting resentment among the Sunni poor on the outskirts over what they see as sympathies for Assad among the wealthy downtown, not just among Alawites but also prosperous Sunni merchant families.   Continued...

A man walks at the damaged Harasta area that was caused by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in Damascus February 25, 2013. REUTERS/ Mohamed Abdullah