DAMASCUS, Syria — Edgy residents of the Syrian capital are grappling with a difficult question: What if a U.S. airstrike helps rebels poised on the city’s outskirts to storm into the heart of Damascus?
The capital has been mostly insulated from the worst of the fighting, which has largely been concentrated in outlying suburbs and elsewhere in the country. But speculation is rampant that U.S. air attacks will try to break down government defenses and enable opposition forces to storm into the streets of the capital, President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.
Since Washington first threatened to attack in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, thousands of soldiers and armed state security officers have descended upon Damascus and taken shelter in schools and mosques, seemingly abandoning posts outside town that might be U.S. targets. Bemused Damascenes describe their city today as something like an open barracks.
Reactions in this tense capital about a possible U.S. attack track both sectarian differences and sharply divided opinions about the civil war, now in its third year.
Amal, a grandmother in her early 50s, lives in the affluent neighborhood of Malki. The heavily guarded loyalist enclave also is home to the private residences of many government officials, including Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
A member of Syria’s small Shiite community, Amal said she and other minorities probably will be targeted by the rebels, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, the majority sect.
Amal, who, like others interviewed, didn’t want her full name used for security reasons, said she had decided to remain in the capital “until the signs are clear that blood is definitely coming my way.”
“Now I think it’s clear,” she added. “It’s time to leave. I’m just waiting for my visa.”
Many other Damascenes also fear that rebels could exact vengeance, though not necessarily for sectarian reasons. Some see a possibility of retaliation against perceived government collaborators and even against those who simply did not join the rebellion.
“They think all of us here in Damascus have been pro-regime all along, so I think they’ll eat us alive,” said Khaled, who opposes a U.S. strike against Syria and suspects that Assad might step down at the eleventh hour to avoid a disaster.
Even Damascenes who support the rebels are worried about what a U.S. strike might bring in the short run. Many here voice concern about the rural nature of most rebel combatants, who tend to come from the countryside and the suburbs and lack a higher education. Much of the capital’s educated middle and upper classes have left or otherwise sat out the rebellion. There is also deep concern about the many foreign militants — from Libya, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere — in the rebel ranks, who lack exposure to Syria’s secular tradition and tolerance for minorities.
“I just hope they love our city and treat it with respect,” said Yaha, 38, a staunch critic of the Assad government who, like many other capital dissidents, didn’t join the uprising. “And frankly, I hope they don’t want to kill us because we didn’t take up arms with them.”
Generally, the only Damascenes who seem comfortable with the possibility that the opposition will breach their city are those who hail from rebel strongholds. Such is the case of Marwan, who seven months ago fled with his family from their embattled north Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh, which is divided between government-controlled and contested zones and where support for the uprising is considerable. He and his wife, Hind, consider themselves secular.
“They’re not Islamists, like the regime wants everyone to believe,” said Marwan, referring to the rebels. “They are our sons. The rebels back in Barzeh, they grew up with my kids.”
On Saturday, hundreds of Christians prayed for peace at a six-hour service at a church in Damascus’ Old City, the basalt stone Greek-Melkite Patriarchal Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady. The mood was decidedly pro-government and opposed to any U.S. attack, reflecting many Christians’ strong support for Assad’s secular government — a government they view as a buffer against the prospect of a radical Islamist takeover.
The service came in response to a papal call for prayer and a day of fasting in support of peace in Syria. In attendance were Vatican diplomats and various Syrian bishops and priests, including Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham, who emphasized that many world leaders were calling for a political solution in Syria.
At times hopeful, at times tearful, the overall mood inside the ornate cathedral reflected the anxious atmosphere on the streets in these nerve-racking days before a potential U.S. attack that could shift the balance of the conflict.
“A strange and arrogant nation that loves war ... has declared a fierce war against us,” one guest priest declared, followed by a chorus of “Oh Lord, protect Syria.”
Laham delivered an impassioned appeal, asking the Christian community, including clerics, to resist the temptation to leave Syria.
Many fear the war could result in much of Syria’s ancient Christian population departing, as happened during the civil war in neighboring Iraq, where Islamic militants targeted churches and Christian clerics.
“I beg, beg, beg you, our dears, to remain here,” the patriarch beseeched. “Young men, young women, remain here. If you leave, who will remain? Only our brethren the Muslims.”
Some worshipers sitting in the crowded pews broke into tears when Laham lamented what has befallen Maaloula, the landmark Christian town north of Damascus that is one of the few remaining places on earth where Aramaic, the presumed language of Jesus, is still spoken. Last week, antigovernment rebels, including Al Qaeda-affiliated factions, stormed Maaloula. Syrian troops reportedly have been pushing the rebels out of the town and the surrounding area, but there have been reports of damage to religious sites.
“We will have light from darkness,” Laham declared. “Even if ... some of [Maaloula’s] sons have been martyred, because I think the entire world knows who the enemy is.”