DAMASCUS, Syria — Hours after two car bombs exploded recently in Syria’s capital, the few residents still willing to venture out on what would normally be a lively Friday night were gathered at the Sham City Center mall, inside thick walls with entrances guarded by metal detectors.
In the food court, families and young couples lingered over ice cream cones and greasy American-style fast food. Most shops were empty save for their sales staff.
Outside, almost a minute passed before a vehicle did. Cabs were few and far between.
The streets have changed from two months ago, when the armed uprising against President Bashar Assad that has rocked much of the rest of the country finally struck more than a dozen neighborhoods here.
The Damascus Volcano, as the rebels termed the offensive, quickly fizzled as the government exhibited its willingness to bomb neighborhoods of its own capital, forcing outgunned rebels to swiftly withdraw.
But it’s not clear how strong the government’s grip really is and how long it can last.
Syrian officials are intent on sending a message that life is back to normal in the capital and that it remains firmly in their control. Photos of Assad and occasionally of his father remain omnipresent on the sides of buildings, along with the Syrian flag. Checkpoints have proliferated and the security presence is everywhere.
Yet the sound of shelling is never too far away, especially as the government escalated its bombardment of southern Damascus neighborhoods last week, forcing rebels to retreat. But the rebels responded. On Tuesday, they claimed to have killed dozens of army officers and militiamen in a bomb attack on a meeting of security forces.
Meanwhile, the passport office is flooded with Syrians seeking to leave, or at least to ensure that they are prepared in case the situation deteriorates.
On Sept. 16, , the government went ahead with its planned opening of schools. But many Damascus residents said they would not dare send their children; one activist said school attendance in the city was little more than 50% and was much lower in the suburbs.
Many schools recently housed displaced residents fleeing other parts of the city and suburbs. Those people have now had to move to other public buildings or parks or return to their homes in threatened areas.
The government’s tactics are similar to those it employed during months of brief protests last year, when blood and other signs of violence were immediately washed away and antigovernment fliers gathered up by loyalist shabiha militiamen.
“In Damascus it is a tactical war,” said Lena, who did not give her real last name because of security concern. “People are saying that Damascus is no longer active after the Damascus Volcano. It is active but it is underground, because the security situation has gotten much worse and there is no other way.”
“The level of calculation has risen,” said Moaz, a fellow activist.
“That and the caution,” Lena added.
Government security buildings and heavily guarded ministries throughout the city are surrounded by beefed-up protection. Concrete barriers block off entrances and, in some cases, entire streets.
Nevertheless, rebels said they had managed to enter a school used by government forces Tuesday and detonate nine explosive devices in the building and fuel barrels underneath it. The attack was timed to coincide with a weekly political training meeting, said Nabil al Amir, a spokesman for the Ahfad al Rasul brigade of the Free Syrian Army. He said the attack was in retaliation for the continued killing of civilians across the country.
The government played down the attack. An official news report said seven people were wounded and that damage was minor.
Dozens of new checkpoints in Damascus stall traffic and disrupt residents’ movements as a way demonstrating government strength. The fear of security officers and spies is such that activists worry about an act as innocuous as standing in the street in one spot for more than a few minutes.
A taxi driver who has worked the city’s streets for more than 30 years said days can go by without him being able to speak with his daughter, who lives in an embattled neighborhood.
“I’m not with anyone; I’m with stability. I want things to go to how they were,” he said. “I used to go out at 3 a.m. and there would be people in the streets and women walking, it was safe. Is this freedom? Every day I go out and see two or three dead bodies.”
Much of the destruction and death here has taken place far from the Sham City Center mall, mostly in poor, isolated districts in the southern part of the city where government shells land regularly. The shelling can be heard throughout the city and the sound of helicopters above warns of an attack somewhere.
Midan, a middle-class neighborhood where protests began early, is one of about a dozen where rebels declared themselves in control during the brief period of fighting in the capital. The counterattack by government forces was swift and brutal, and shelling raged for days before rebels pulled out.
Some signs of destruction remain here: a burned-out police car, a damaged minaret and a school with broken windows. But in less than two months, much has been rebuilt either by the government or by residents.
“They didn’t want noticeable destruction, this is something they are only concerned about in the capital because in actuality it is the only place they really control,” said Abu Rashaad, a fighter with one of Midan’s rebel militias.
The ruin that does remain is found along the winding streets of the older part of the neighborhood, where roofs are caved in and black soot rims many a window. On the walls, antigovernment slogans are sloppily covered up.
Even neighborhoods that haven’t seen any fighting hold risks for the opposition.
In the middle-class part of the Mezze district, checkpoints spring up as the sun goes down and security forces regularly raid homes.
At the home of one prominent activist, a relative burst through the door on a recent Friday evening, warning that security forces were moving through the streets.
In a matter of minutes, laptops were stowed in drawers, along with cellphone chargers. Passports were tucked amid the family’s gold jewelry. All papers linking the home’s occupants to the opposition had already been hidden behind the washing machine.
With all incriminating material out of sight, the residents settled into the living room as if nothing was amiss.
The TV channel was switched from Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite news channel, to children’s cartoons.