No taxi driver was willing to risk the drive to Al-Midan, a popular venue for stocking up on goodies for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as war came to the historic district of the Syrian capital on Monday.
“Everything is burning,” said Nazih, a driver who agreed to go as far as the Bab Msala district near Al-Midan. “Since the morning there’s been shooting and we haven’t been going into Al-Midan.”
“The army and security forces have been deployed in large numbers. We mustn’t go there unless it’s absolutely essential,” said another taxi driver.
On the road to Bab Msala, shops in the Bab Jabiyeh district were closed and traffic was much lighter than usual.
Tanks and troop carriers took up positions in Al-Midan on Monday for the first time since the anti-regime revolt in Syria began in March 2011.
“This fighting in Damascus is a turning point,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman. “When there is fighting in the capital for several hours, even days … that proves the regime’s weakness.”
His account was backed up by an activist in Damascus, the nerve centre of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “This is the first time that armoured vehicles equipped with heavy artillery are deployed in Al-Midan,” he told AFP.
In other anti-regime districts where unprecedented battles broke out on Sunday, “raids grew more intense early on Monday afternoon,” said the activist who identified himself as Abu Omar.
“There is no one on the streets except regime troops and Free Syrian Army rebels,” he said.
Compared to other cities in Syria, Damascus had previously been relatively secure and anti-regime protests smaller. But since Sunday the capital has been the scene of heavy fighting between rebels and regime troops.
The army launched an unprecedented attack to try to reclaim rebel districts on the southern, eastern and western outskirts. Activists said all roads linking Damascus to its province had been cut off.
Violent shelling struck several areas of Damascus province, with the heaviest blasts heard in the centre of the capital.
Syrian authorities vowed on Monday they would not surrender the capital. “You will never get Damascus,” read the headline in Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime.
“Security forces, backed by the army, have for the past 48 hours been attacking the terrorist groups as they try to pull back to districts on the outskirts,” the paper said.