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The boom of outgoing artillery fire no longer makes people in Damascus glance up from their work or interrupt their conversation even for a moment. After a year of fighting, it is a background noise so familiar that nobody refers to the thunderous sounds even though they show that the battle for the capital is not quite over.
The artillery fire was in support of a government push to regain ground around the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab to the south of Damascus.
Fighters from Hezbollah are reported to be taking part in the Syrian army’s local offensive in the area. The gold-leaf covered dome and blue minarets of the mosque rise above the tomb of Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohamed’s grand-daughter, which until recently attracted hundreds of thousand of Shia pilgrims from across the Muslim world.
Syrians are weary but do no expect the civil war to end soon. A diplomat said: “The problem is that both sides still think they can win.” The government would like a ceasefire but for the opposition this would seem to be a surrender. “I think there will be a peace conference in Geneva, but maybe not until September,” commented a Syrian official. “I think it will happen because the Russians want it to happen.” Observers in Damascus believe that success over the Syrian crisis is crucial for Russia in reaffirming its status as a great power after many humiliations and setbacks since the first Gulf War in 1991.
In a sign of the escalating conflict between Shia and Sunni stemming from the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia said that it is expelling Lebanese who support Hezbollah. Many of the half-million Lebanese who work in Gulf countries ruled by Sunni monarchs are Shia and feel under threat.
Stories of sectarian atrocities exacerbate fears in the capital. Pictures of the 14-year-old boy shot twice in the face in Aleppo for making use of a common phrase about the Prophet were seen by everybody on social media.
Other atrocity stories, such as one about a Christian taxi driver whose body was cut up and fed to dogs after he referred to the rebels as “terrorists”, are less provable but are believed and increase the sense of fear in the capital.
The struggle for the Damascus has swayed back and forth since the rebels launched a mass attack last July and captured many districts close to the centre. They were then driven out by the army and suffered heavy losses, but the army was never able to consolidate its control and rebels were able to re-infiltrate.
A foreign diplomat said that “from last December the government told us it was adopting a new strategy of holding Damascus, the main population centres and the main roads”. This approach largely succeeded though the rebels fired mortar bombs into the centre of Damascus earlier in the year without precise targeting. Three landed in the grounds of the Sheraton hotel.
It is important for the rebels to show that they have not permanently lost the military initiative after their defeat at Qusayr. “The opposition is being weakened by their internal problems, inability to provide security as well as looting, criminal activities and failure to provide services,” said a foreign observer. “In Aleppo Christians are being kidnapped as apostates, but all the kidnappers want is money. In Damascus even people who supported the opposition now ask: ‘Are we really going to give power to these people?’” He pointed out that the Islamic fundamentalist groups are winning more recruits from other movements because their fighters are get better pay.
The growing unpopularity of the rebels does not necessarily imply that the government is becoming more popular. “Maybe 10 per cent support the rebels, 10 per cent the government and 80 per cent just want the war to end,” said one observer, who like everybody else in this piece wished to remain anonymous. Another person with strong links to the government said: “People are saying ‘We don’t care who rules us. We just want to live’.”
The collapse in value of the Syrian pound has been a further shock. It fell sharply over the weekend. Bread is subsidised long with sugar, rice and heating, but people queue for hours outside bakeries. “I waited for one-and-a-half hours for bread and had to leave to go to work,” said one woman.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.