Some Damascus residents now fear the worst after Islamist coalition gains against the military in northern Syria. Despite regime reassurances, could jihadists infiltrate the capital?
“We are trembling with fear. If the extremists get in there’ll be fighting in the streets. Everything will be destroyed,” said marble merchant Mohammed Ayman in the Damascus city centre.
There are few outward signs of the trepidation felt by many. The traffic is as bad as usual, and the shops are all open.
However, morale is low among many residents because the news from the front is not good.
On Saturday, Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front fighters and other rebel groups took the key regime town of Jisr al-Shughur in the northwest less than a month after seizing Idlib, capital of the province of the same name.
These latest losses in the north can be added to important rebel gains in the far south in Daraa province, where both the ancient town of Bosra al-Sham and the main border crossing with Jordan have fallen.
“I heard on an Arab TV channel that the rebels will be in Damascus in 90 days. We’re in a trap,” said hawker Salim Afghani.
“No one in the world can help us. Damascus could be destroyed, just like Jisr al-Shughur.”
– ‘Thousands of terrorists’ –
State television has reported the fall of both Jisr al-Shughur and Idlib, despite the “heroism” of soldiers in the face of “the arrival of thousands of terrorists who came from Turkey”.
A senior security official says there is no reason to panic.
“The recent developments and a few terrorist successes have caused these feelings,” he said.
“In reality, what happened in Idlib was just one round in the current battle. And on the ground, the army has things in hand, with the terrorists practically under siege in Jisr al-Shughur.”
He blamed “media propaganda” for the current unease in the capital, calling it “a kind of psychological war waged by terrorist groups to spread fear”.
The gloom of many Damascus residents is especially felt because of the latest setbacks, whereas previously they were used to military gains being offset by failures since the conflict erupted in 2011.
“If the jihadists enter Damascus they’ll massacre people they see as close to the regime and the others will have to flee,” warned tailor Hashem.
“In any case, the city will be destroyed just like the Palestinian refugee camp recently at Yarmuk” on the capital’s outskirts.
The entry on April 1 of militants from the Islamic State group sparked fighting and bombardments in Yarmuk, but most of the damage there dates from clashes between regime forces and rebels in 2013.
– ‘Highs and lows’ –
Hyam, a 50-year-old doctor in general practice, puts up a calm front.
“The war isn’t finished. There have always been highs and lows. But Damascus will not fall easily,” she said.
She believes that “recent rebel successes are aimed at bolstering their hand” ahead of negotiations under UN auspices expected in May between members of the opposition and the regime.
In the north in Aleppo, Syria’s second city and once its teeming commercial capital, the feeling of fear is palpable in government-controlled districts.
“Many people have been saying in recent days that Aleppo could fall, like Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur,” said Tony, a web designer reached by telephone.
“Jisr was well-protected by the army and it still fell, so anything could happen,” he said.
Aleppo has been split in two since July 2012, with rebels controlling more than half of the city in the east exchanging regular fire with regime forces in the west.