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Middle East

‘The mood was one of resignation’: Death comes to Straight Street in Damascus

Patrick Cockburn sees five lives lost in the bombing of a Christian quarter of the Syrian capital

I was writing the accompanying article about the situation in Homs when there were a series of dull thumps near my hotel in the Christian Bab Touma district in the Old City of Damascus. The boom of artillery rounds going out and the sharper crack of mortar rounds coming in have become part of background noise in the Syrian capital, so I did not pay much attention. Then the phone rang and a friend said a suicide bomber had blown himself up a few hundred yards away outside the Naranj, a restaurant where I have often eaten, and the Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary church which stands opposite. Four people had been killed.

Almost all these early reports, aside from the number of dead, turned out to be not entirely true. I started to walk to the church. The explosion had happened in the Street Called Straight, of biblical fame, 100 yards or more from the Naranj and the church and was close to a Shia Muslim hospital, which might imply a sectarian motive for the attack. 

The first thing I saw on entering Straight Street was a white sheet covering a body. People would come up and flick open the top of the sheet to see if it was anybody they knew. There were local Christian militiamen from the National Defence Force keeping order but there was a mood of resignation rather than panic. I went to look at the place of the explosion where there was a dent about three inches deep in the pavement. It looked to me more like the detonation mark of mortar bomb than a suicide bomber. There was no blood around the spot as there would have been if someone had blown themselves up. It looked as if the mortar had been randomly fired into the Christian quarter by rebels who assume Christians, frightened of Islamic fundamentalism, are pro-government.

The force of the explosion had hit a curio shop for foreign tourists, wounding the owner in the leg. A few yards further on, the pavement was drenched with blood and I assumed somebody had died there. 

Witnesses are difficult to find in these situations because those truly close to the explosion are usually dead or in hospital. A man called Joseph Ballangi described how he had just parked his car and was walking away from when he heard the crash of the explosion. We had just finished talking when there was sharp crack of a mortar bomb exploding nearby and the militiamen told everybody to go inside.

I went and sat in the entrance passage of a house. Walking home I stopped for an orange juice at the Naranj restaurant which remained resolutely open. I asked if anybody had been injured in the second explosion and was told a woman had been killed, bringing the total number of dead to five.

Syrian rebels will get ‘CIA arms’ in Jordan

The CIA has begun transferring weapons to Jordan in readiness to send them to “vetted” groups of Syrian rebels, US officials have told the Wall Street Journal. The consignments – which are being moved from a network of secret warehouses – are expected to comprise light weapons and possibly even anti-tank missiles, and could be in the hands of the Free Syrian Army in time for an offensive against regime forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad by the beginning of August.

CIA agents are to spend two weeks vetting the rebel groups and training them how to use the equipment before they cross the border into Syria. The report claims that the US is in talks with European countries including France, which could also move weapons to Jordan.

Saudi Arabia is also expected to arm a group of hand-picked opposition fighters, and the US will attempt to keep track of the equipment in an attempt to stop it reaching Islamist groups. A “few hundred” rebels equipped in this way would join the fight every month. The US officials believe that within a few months this will begin to make a material difference on the ground.

One European nation that looks unlikely to join the push is Germany. Today Chancellor Angela Merkel told her parliament that she understood why some Western powers wanted to arm the rebels, but that in her opinion the risks of doing so would be “incalculable”.