Syrian rebels defiantly announced on Friday that they regarded Damascus International Airport as a legitimate military target as it is used by the government to bring in military supplies. From afar, this sounds like a reasonable tactic, but a visit to the area reveals that this simply means that rebel gunmen shoot at any car, civilian or military, using the main airport road. On the ground, the Syrian conflict is as vicious and unrelenting as any civil war, with civilians the main target.
The airport road runs past Jaramana, a township of at least 250,000 people, most of whom are Christian or Druze and are seen as supporters of the government. There is still a sculptured head of President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar and leader of Syria for 30 years, in the main square. A couple of hundred yards further on, the street is blocked by a broken metal street light and a large potted plant, indicating that it would be unwise to travel on to the airport road which lies just beyond.
"Don't go any further," warned a local shopkeeper. "There are snipers there and they shoot at anything." We watched a white pick-up truck gingerly skirt the potted plant and drive towards the airport road before hurriedly making a U-turn and returning to safety. It was impossible to know if the driver had been shot at or lost his nerve at the last moment, because all the time we were in Jaramana we could hear bursts of gunfire and occasionally the crash of rocket-propelled grenades exploding. This background noise is now so common in Damascus, though street fighting has been going on for only a couple of weeks, that local people no longer interrupt their conversation to remark on it and go on talking unless there is an especially loud explosion.
The shopkeeper, a grizzled man in his fifties who wanted to give his name only as Pierre, turned out to design wedding dresses and took us to his small shop which was just round the corner and out of sight of snipers. In the shop window there were two mannequins in magnificent wedding dresses, one white, one purple, with long trains and ample flounces. Pierre rolled up his shirtsleeve to show where he had been wounded when two bombs exploded 10 days ago. He said: "I went to help the people hurt in the first bomb when a second bomb in a Mercedes exploded. It killed 68 people and you can still see their blood on the walls high up on the front of buildings."
Damascus feels more and more like Belfast in the early 1970s, or Beirut a few years later. Survival requires up-to-date knowledge of the sectarian geography and the city has become full of no-go areas. I asked to visit a military hospital and an official said this might be difficult because it was in a "hot" area. Fighting had taken place at the gates of the hospital.
There are unexplained events that may be threatening but are often just mysterious and menacing. For instance, there was a dark cloud of smoke rising yesterday morning from Zamalka, another hot area, but nobody knew what was burning. When we were trying to leave Jaramana a few hours later, there were what sounded like two pistol shots near by and suddenly all the soldiers started running, shouting at us to drive away, which we hurriedly did, but nobody we spoke to knew what the alarm was all about.
The centre of Damascus is something of a bubble, with the fighting mostly in the suburbs or townships surrounding the capital. There are giant traffic jams, drivers often taking two or three hours to drive a few miles, because so many roads are blocked and there are so many checkpoints. Vehicles are often banned from in front of government buildings, increasing the congestion. Many shops are open, but the mood is edgy and apprehensive. There are electricity cuts of six to eight hours a day, though this is still better than Aleppo where there has been no electricity for four days. There is plenty of food in the markets and shops, but prices have jumped because the roads are dangerous and transport expensive.
There has also been a flood of people from the rest of Syria into Damascus because it has hitherto been the safest place to live. Often, they are staying with relatives or in small hotels and apartments recently vacated by refugees from Iraq who have gone home, having decided that even Baghdad is not as dangerous as Damascus. Better-off Syrians have moved to Lebanon or further afield, and the big hotels in central Damascus are empty aside from a handful of journalists and UN personnel. The UN and EU pulled out most of their remaining staff from the city last week.
Some in Damascus reject the idea that the country faces a future of sectarian and ethnic division between Sunni, Alawite, Shia, Druze, Christian and Kurd. Anwar al-Bouni, a civil rights lawyer with a Christian background who spent many years in prison, says Syria is not going to be like Lebanon or Iraq, because it doesn't have sectarian quotas such as those that were imposed by the French and the Americans. He sees the great majority of Syrians as being united against the government and says this is going to end only one way. He pointed out that the government had not staged mass demonstrations to show its popularity for over a year.
Not everybody is so optimistic. Another human rights activist, who did not want his named published, makes the same point that Syria differs from Lebanon and Iraq but he says that the difference may have negative consequences. In Lebanon, the sectarian fragmentation is so great that no sect has a majority, so there have to be compromises if conflict is to be avoided. He said the same was true frequently in Iraq because, even if the Shia are a majority, they do not have overwhelming numbers. But the activist said that in Syria the Sunni are 70 per cent and may feel they do not have to compromise with anybody. I increasingly hear them grumbling about making any concessions to the minorities.”
Syrians discuss constantly how close they are to the end of the crisis convulsing the country. One businessman said: "I go to bed at 8pm because I sent my wife and children to the US and Canada and I am all alone in my house. I wake up at 5am, and watch the news on all the television stations. I can't see how anybody is going to win, but at the same time I feel it can't go on more than another couple of months." A senior diplomat who just left Syria says he does not believe the end is close because, despite its recent losses, the regime has not suffered any really serious defections yet.”
Both sides in this war are militarily weaker than they look. Closing the airport sounds impressive, but only means that a few men with rifles are shooting up the airport road. It is difficult to see why the conflict should end any time soon.