Veneer of normality as Damascus spared worst of the war

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:40am

Even in the capital of a country torn apart by civil war and facing the imminent prospect of US strikes, Syrians have to find some way to enjoy themselves on a hot summer weekend.

So the pool at a Damascus luxury hotel was packed on a recent afternoon. The children playing in the water paid no attention to the frequent thump of artillery and shells from fighting on the city outskirts.

"This part of Damascus, the centre, is like Paris. But beyond that, you don't go," said a 26-year-old bank employee, lounging on the deck with his buddies, who took puffs from a thick cigar they passed among themselves. Like several others, he talked on condition he not be identified, wary about drawing the attention of either side in the conflict.

Not that the centre is entirely safe. Just a day earlier, a mortar fired by rebels on the city edges landed just a block from the hotel, across the street from a church, knocking a chunk off the balcony of an apartment building. A few days later, on Monday, another mortar hit a neighbouring mosque, cracking its minaret and killing a passer-by.

The veneer of normality is thin in Damascus, the stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad's rule, at a time when a conflict that has dragged on more for than two and a half years nears a potentially crucial juncture: possible US and Western airstrikes against the Syrian military in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack last week.

Firmly in the hands of the state and the military, the capital has been spared the widespread destruction wreaked on battle zone cities such as Aleppo and the rebel-held districts on Damascus' outskirts. Instead, the city of around two million feels small and hemmed in.

For much of the conflict, it has been cut off from its hinterland, the densely populated towns and villages that surround it in the area known as "Rif Dimashq," or "the Damascus Countryside." Rebels have controlled most of the Rif since last year, and regime forces have launched repeated assaults trying to dislodge them, devastating the area.

Nearly daily last week, military artillery stationed on Qassioun Mountain, the plateau that overlooks the capital from the north, bombarded the rebel-held suburbs east of the capital, just a 20-minute drive from downtown.

Once, the Rif Dimashq was intimately linked to the capital. Many Damascenes would go on days off to Ghouta for family barbeques in its gardens and fields.

Now, residents of the capital talk of it like a zone of death, where no-one dares to go.

The city has also been swamped by an influx of Syrians fleeing from wartorn parts of the country But with little to do they wander through the city's historic Souq al-Hamediya market.