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.

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