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Syria rebels practice patience in the fight for Damascus

President Bashar Assad is committed to keeping his grip on the capital like nowhere else. His security apparatus there has forced rebels to employ a calculated warfare.

September 29, 2012
  • A fire rages at the centuries-old bazaar, the Souk Madina, in Aleppo’s Old City on Saturday. The image is taken from Shaam News Network video that has been authenticated based on its contents and other reporting.
A fire rages at the centuries-old bazaar, the Souk Madina, in Aleppo’s… (Shaam News Network )

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.

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