Syrians pack up to flee Damascus as war escalates

 

Beirut, Lebanon

Syrian interior decorator Wassim Issa knew it was time to get out.

Before leaving for Lebanon, the 37-year-old Damascus resident hadn't had any business in six months and the proliferation of security checkpoints in the streets of the capital suggested to him things were only going to get worse. Now, Issa is trying to collect money from indebted clients before finally moving to Dubai. Most have either fled the country or are too poor to pay their bills.

"My job these days is to go around and try to get the money people owe me," Issa said last week over a cheese and ham pizza in a cafe in Chtaura, a Lebanese town with popular rest areas a few miles from the Syrian border.

Like Issa, most of the Syrians packing the small eatery had made the 40-kilometer (25-mile) trip from Damascus that day. Many were headed elsewhere, and planned to catch flights from Beirut rather than the Syrian capital because of the danger as rebels attack President Bashar al-Assad's seat of power. Diehard Assad supporters sat next to his opponents, engulfed by a 21- month-old conflict that shows no sign of ending.

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa told the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper on Sunday that the civil war is destined for stalemate. Syrians are leaving at a rate of 3,000 a day, Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Dec. 11. About 510,000 refugees have been registered or are awaiting registration in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and North Africa.

The violence creeping on Damascus "is significant because the capital is the major prize," Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East studies program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said in a telephone interview. "Nobody can say that they own Syria until they own Damascus."

Activist groups reported clashes overnight. One of them, the Damascus Media Office, said on its Facebook page that the sound of "fierce shelling" could be heard in most neighborhoods. It said the rebel Free Syrian Army attacked a government intelligence post with mortars and machineguns.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an umbrella group representing cities and towns in the country, said 161 people were killed Wednesday, including 67 in Damascus and its suburbs. To date, more than 44,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict, which started in March 2011, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Issa and his fellow Damascenes had stayed even as fighting pulverized neighborhoods in major cities such as Aleppo and Hama because Damascus had been spared that kind of violence.

Maha Zarour, 50, and Manal Abi Samra, 29, both ardent supporters of the government, remain defiant. Though they are afraid of what the next few weeks may bring, they plan to return to their homes after a few days' break.

"We are confident the rebels will never win," said Abi Samra. "Our army is strong and they're just a bunch of armed gangs," she said, echoing the government's description.

Thursday, the veneer of normalcy that Damascus has sustained throughout the conflict is fraying, according to accounts from the people who have departed.

Clashes between Assad's troops and rebels embedded in mostly poor, Sunni Muslim suburbs, have intensified and there are almost daily bombings in the capital and checkpoints at every major street and many side roads.

At the same cafe in Lebanon, other Syrians were seeking refuge across the region. One man was taking his family to Egypt while another wanted to set up his wife and two daughters in the relative safety of Beirut after a rebel-fired mortar killed his only son.

"I don't want to lose the rest of my family," said Bashar, tears rolling down his face. He gave his first name only, fearing retribution.

The closure of major highways by rebel forces as well as international sanctions have led to shortages in Damascus, mainly in flour, diesel and cooking gas.

Long lines outside bakeries mean a wait of more than two hours to get a kilogram of bread, which now sells for 75 pounds ($1.06) compared with 15 pounds when the crisis began, according to Ahmed al-Hussein, 40, who trades in used mobile phones. A shortage of fuel has tripled cab fares and deprived many Syrians of diesel to heat their homes, added al-Hussein, whose business is down to a third of what it was a few months ago.

The resulting flow of refugees out of the country "will add to the woes of a post-Assad Syria," said Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultant. "In light of the intensity of violence and the virulence of the conflict, levels of unrest and insecurity are likely to remain high for many years regardless of the outcome."

Issa was going to Amman, the Jordanian capital, to pick up a visa from an embassy that had closed in Damascus.

"Damascenes look around and they see the checkpoints and the security forces at every corner," he said. "They can tell that something big is brewing but they don't know what it is. That is adding to the fear."

 

— With assistance from Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara.

Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
Sport
Vincenzo Nibali rides into Paris on the final stage of the 2014 Tour de France
Tour de FranceVincenzo Nibali is first Italian winner since Marco Pantani in 1998
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Sport
Red Bull Racing's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (C) celebrates with Scuderia Ferrari's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso (L) and Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton
sport
Arts and Entertainment
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmComedy was dominated by the romcom at its most insufferable
Sport
Tour de France competitor Bartosz Huzarski’s legs have highlighted the gruelling nature of the race, after he posted a picture on Facebook showing extremely prominent veins stretching from his feet and all the way up his legs
Commonwealth Games
Life and Style
Elle Kaye demonstrates the art of taxidermy
food + drinkFood revolution taken a step further in new ‘edible taxidermy’ class
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
Halsall broke her personal best in the 50m butterfly
Commonwealth GamesEnglish swimmer is reborn after disastrous time at London 2012
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Voices
The Express offices in the 1930s when writers (such as Orwell) were paid around £2 weekly
voicesWebsites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
A cut above: Katy Guest at The Ginger Pig
food + drinkThe Ginger Pig's hands-on approach to primary cuts
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried