DAMASCUS, Syria — When shop owners and customers saw the small group of armed men appear on the street, they ran the other way or headed indoors.
“Go, go,” said one shopper, holding several bags as he ducked into an alley. “Go back, they’re going to start fighting.”
The tiny band of Free Syrian Army rebel fighters had decided to attack a nearby checkpoint, a rudimentary barrier of sandbags manned by a few government troops on a street lined with convenience stores, pharmacies and vegetable sellers.
Here in Tadamon, a southern Damascus neighborhood that has at various times in recent months been under rebel control, government forces are never far away.
“Put a song on so the guys get pumped up and turn up the volume,” one of the group’s fighters instructed their driver, as the men piled into a green minivan. They were armed with about a dozen Kalashnikov rifles, a handgun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher borrowed from another of the many militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
As they approached the checkpoint, however, they decided there were still too many civilians around, so they called off the attack.
“We will hit it later,” said the commander of Al Furqan militia, who goes by the name Abu Rahaf.
Elsewhere in Syria, rebels have seized large swaths of the countryside and city districts. Here, opposition fighters operate within a labyrinth of government checkpoints, military bases and security compounds — more than 60 checkpoints in Damascus, according to activists’ estimates.
Though President Bashar Assad has been willing to let other areas slip out of his hand — even as his forces continue to bombard these areas from the air — the capital is far too important.
As a result, rebels in Damascus are engaged in more calculated warfare, dominated by targeted operations that include checkpoint attacks, assassinations and the bombing of government security buildings.
In mid-July, in what Free Syrian Army militias acknowledge to be a mistake, armed opposition groups began an offensive they were ill-equipped to fight. Some predicted that what they termed the “Damascus Volcano” was the beginning of the end for the government. It ended in less than a week as rebels were beaten back.
“We need to weaken the regime from the inside and then we can move to the stage where we can engage in open battle,” said a commander who uses the nickname Abu Samir, leader of one of more than 30 armed groups that make up the Sahaba militia, which has fighters spread across Damascus and many of its suburbs.
Members of the militia have been involved in some of the most strategic attacks in the capital. In May, the group — working with an employee in a national security building — poisoned the meal of the government’s top security officials and ministers, Abu Samir said.
Two months later, on July 18, a meeting of the same government officials was attacked by a suicide bomber that killed at least four of Assad’s closest security aides.
Early this month, rebels bombed a heavily guarded building housing the Defense Ministry and air force intelligence, among other security divisions.
The government played down the attack, but the Ahfad Rasul brigade, which claimed responsibility, said that dozens of high-level officials were killed.
In an interview three days before the bombing, Assad told the pro-government Addounia TV channel that the situation was improving but he needed more time.
“Our brigade leader sat and thought, '[Assad] thinks the situation is well. What if we show him that it’s not?’” said an Ahfad Rasul spokesman, who uses the pseudonym Nabil Amir.
The explosives were planted in the compound with the help of a worker there, he said. Such relationships are crucial for targeted operations, said Amir, a former army officer.
The building was attacked again Wednesday by another militia, a day after the Sahaba group bombed a school used by army officers and pro-government militiamen.
“The ‘Damascus Volcano’ was too early, but we did need to quicken our work and operate more inside the city,” Amir said.
Rebel groups say they plan more such operations, which will probably rely on civilians and those in government to help.
Abu Abdullah, an opposition member, is not a wanted man, making him particularly valuable to the rebels.
The well-to-do refrigerator salesman, who uses a pseudonym with fellow rebels, moves easily through checkpoints across Damascus and helps transport supplies varying from weapons to medical equipment.
The checkpoints seem to serve more to intimidate and inconvenience than to catch rebels. Soldiers usually only glance at ID cards and search vehicles to make it clear who is still in control.
On a recent arms smuggling trip into Damascus, Abu Abdullah successfully passed through eight checkpoints.
At one, a young soldier slowly walked the length of the white minivan before he grabbed the handle of the side door and swung it open. He pointed to Abu Abdullah’s eldest son, a boy just beginning to show a hint of a mustache, and ordered him out.
“Why do you want to scare him?” asked Um Abdullah, his mother, sounding hurt and accusatory. “Haven’t we been scared enough? You guys are constantly shelling and shooting at us.”
“No, it’s just practice shooting,” the soldier replied with a slight laugh. It wasn’t clear whether he meant it.
The weapons that Abu Abdullah transports usually come by way of Lebanon. But the flow of weapons is slow and intermittent, another factor that has limited fighting in Damascus.
The Lebanese area closest to Damascus is mostly under the control of the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, one of the few remaining allies of Assad, and the trek into Syria is an arduous hours-long hike across a mountain range.
To get into Syria, smugglers must cross perilously close to an army checkpoint manned by snipers. They pass along trails of loose rocks where wild dogs threaten to announce their presence.
Some rebel commanders said they wait a month between weapon deliveries.
Rebel commanders in Damascus often say, “Our battle is all hit and run.”
Sometimes it is more run than anything else.
Given the challenging battle landscape in Damascus, withdrawal doesn’t carry the same connotation of failure as elsewhere in Syria. It seems the odds are stacked mightily against the opposition in the capital.
Rebels’ willingness to withdraw is both an acknowledgment of their abilities and a fear of the rampant destruction government forces are willing to inflict on rebellious areas.
Last week, as government forces continued to pound the southern part of the city with tanks and aerial strikes, rebels retreated from most of the neighborhoods.
Just a couple of weeks before, in an apartment where a militia leader in Tadamon was squatting, several rebel leaders discussed strategy.
“If you are asked to withdraw, will you?” asked Abu Samir, the commander with the Sahaba militia.
“Yes,” Abu Majid, said. “We won’t stay an extra day.”
“In Baba Amr they could have left in two days and it would have been over,” Abu Samir said. “But they drew it out for 28 days and destroyed the entire neighborhood.”
It is within this complicated landscape that men like Abu Majid, who leads a group of 30 young fighters in the Thul Nurain militia, plan daily attacks.
It was almost 1 a.m. recently when Abu Majid got on the phone and summoned two rebels in his militia: “Come quick.” Within minutes Abu Rida, a heavyset man, and Fleece, a scrawny guy, walked in — as if they were a comic duo.
“At 3:30 tonight we’re going to hit the town hall; it’s full of security officers,” said Abu Majid, whose array of arm tattoos includes a simple, faded rendition of a snake, two pink hearts and the initials of three women, including his wife.
“There’s no way. There’s a sniper, and more importantly, we need to have a way to withdraw,” Abu Rida said. “We can’t do this suddenly; we need to study it.”
Abu Majid agreed with them to wait a day — despite a fear of spies in their midst — and to abduct a government informant who lives near the town hall for information.
“But if you bring him you’re going to have to kill him,” one member of the group said.
“We’ll kill him,” Abu Majid said, the man’s fate decided without pause.
As the heavy shelling around them continued, the group moved the meeting to a ground-floor apartment for safety. Gathered were three vegetable vendors, a chauffeur, a deliveryman and Fleece, who makes a living collecting scrap metal. They sketched out their planned attack in a Tweety Bird notebook.
It was a quick meeting of civilian fighters plotting a simple attack on a building full of well-trained security officers. The group had only four rocket-propelled grenades at their disposal.
“The others left the country to people like me or Fleece or a vegetable seller. They left Syria to the poor and said, ‘Fend for yourselves,’” Abu Majid said. “We can surprise the army once or twice, but they can surprise us 10 times because of their military training.”
The next night though, his group attacked the building, and claimed they killed two dozen soldiers and officers and forced the rest to flee.
It was a fleeting success. Within days, the government returned in force, pounding the district with shells and artillery.
Abu Majid’s group launched a defense but was forced to retreat a day later.