Is Assad losing his grip on Damascus?

Guest post by DaveM

Amidst reports over the weekend of a 12-hour battle in the heart of Damascus between the Free Syrian Army and the security forces, this is the question being asked by CNN’s Arwa Damon.

Until very recently Damascus had been under the tight grip of the regime’s security forces. While it had witnessed demonstrations and bombings, there were no reports of actual armed conflict and Syrian state media had gone out of its way to portray things as ‘business as usual’ in the capital, and to insist that Syria is just about to overcome this ‘crisis’.

So how come, seemingly out of nowhere, there’s a Free Syria Army presence right in the centre of Damascus? It’s right under the nose of a regime which is built upon its security and intelligence apparatus, and whose very survival depends on the efficiency and ruthlessness of this network.

The only explanation I can think of is that the intelligence and security elements most loyal to Assad are being stretched to breaking point as the uprising taking place throughout the entire country shows no sign of abating. Homs appears to be the epicentre of the conflict, with most of the regime’s resources being focused on eliminating the FSA’s presence in the town.

CNN, Al Arabiya and the BBC have people inside Homs giving accounts of Assad’s forces intensifying their attacks on the city. These attacks appear to be part of a systematic crackdown indicating that they’re being carried out by the most loyal, efficient and, dare I say it, professional members of Assad’s security forces.

This is in comparison to the frenzied massacres most likely carried out by the Shabiha paramilitaries which took place in Houla and al-Qubair.

Robert King is inside Homs and on 8th June he spoke to CNN about regime snipers deliberately targeting children.

The previous day Al Arabiya spoke to Mohammed Dagmash from inside Talbisa, Homs, who described the air and artillery assaults on the town by Assad’s forces. There are claims of air strikes from war planes. However the only footage I’ve personally seen has been of helicopter strikes.

Mohammed Dagmash, Talbisa: “We saw a vehicle which we call a BRM, it’s like a tank. We saw it entering this town and it contained around 15 soldiers and an officer. This vehicle entered the town and then a random shelling of the town commenced. I think that this is a form of collective punishment upon the residents.”

Suhair al-Qaisi, studio: “Muhammed, a moment ago I had a guest who was saying that usually when the regime’s forces resort to using war planes there are (ground) operations to raid the town. Have you noticed any preparations in Talbisa by the regime’s forces to enter the town and pursue the defectors?”

MD: “Suhair, this town is in a really bad way. It’s besieged in all directions and there are a number of regime army checkpoints. Every day these checkpoints shell the city using artillery. Now, after the defections the town, right up to this moment, has been subjected to a really violent bombardment. The residents say that this is the fiercest bombardment on this town since the beginning of the revolution.”

SaQ: “We’ve noticed in the exclusive footage which you have sent us, Mohammed, that some of the inhabitants went into the streets having left their homes in fear of air strikes. Do you have any idea if there are more secure places than Talbisa (for the residents to shelter in) or if they’re allowed to leave (the town)?”

MD: “Unfortunately they are absolutely no safe places. At the beginning of the bombardment a few weeks ago the residents got out of their homes and went into the surrounding streets in fear of their homes collapsing on top of them. Now in the first three to four hours of the shelling nobody has left their home. Everybody is remaining in their homes awaiting their destiny. And after the violent intensification of the shelling the people were forced to go into the streets. There is no sanctuary at all. This city has no shelter. The town isn’t set up for wars such as the one we’re seeing today. We saw dozens of shells in a single hour rain down on the heads and houses of civilians. Naturally this town isn’t equipped at all for such a violent war.”

SaQ: “In speaking about equipment and preparations, in this picture we’re seeing some residents putting the injured in cars to transport them to somewhere else, to hospitals for example? During this air strike which is resulting in the dozens of injuries which you were speaking about, and we’re now seeing the injured in this footage. Is it possible to transport them to a place for treatment? Are the hospitals in Talbisa ready for this number of injured?”

MD: “Suhair, outside Syria injuries which result in fatalities are completely different from the ones which result in fatalities inside Syria. In Syria the field hospitals which are in Talbisa are totally unable to treat any injury. The doctors here are not specialists in any sense of the word. There are no surgeons. There are no bone doctors, or specialists in those types of injuries. Just now we have received news of the death of a young man which was because of an injury to his foot. I think that outside Syria this injury wouldn’t be fatal at all but the doctors here are totally unable to treat…”

SaQ: “He bled to death? Have you seen for yourself the injured describe for us their injuries. You’re in Talbisa so have you seen with your own eyes the dead and corpses?”

MD: “Suhair, we have seen horrifying scenes, to the point where we have not been able to show them and I’m unable to speak about them. I saw a girl who I think was 13 years old and she had lost her legs. We’ve seen horrifying scenes. They were all killed inside their home. They were not killed on the battle front or for a reason or anything like that. They were killed inside their home. I can’t speak about what I’ve seen as it’s horrific. An entire family was inside their home and it got shelled.”

SaQ: “I mention to the viewers that the pictures which we are watching at the moment is Al Arabiya exclusive footage, and here we see the residents in their homes complaining and in a state of fear because of the continuous artillery strikes on Talbisa carried out by Syrian war planes. We’re listening and watching with you this exclusive footage from Talbisa which is still under Syrian aerial bombardment.”

Today the BBC’s correspondent in Homs reports continued shelling and what sounds like unmanned drones.

With the regime’s attention and resources tied up in Homs, it appears to have been unable to sustain such a tight grip Damascus. Not only are there clashes in the city but also reports of widespread strikes by shop owners and the merchant class.

What happens next is anybody’s guess.

If Assad feels that his back’s against the wall, I’d rule nothing out. In 2005 he let Lebanon slip slightly out of his grasp. In 2012 he’s going to do all he can to keep hold of Syria no matter what it takes and how many people are killed as a result.

At the end of the day he’s living in the shadow of his father. Hafiz built his power base on the corpses of Syrians, I suspect Bashar will eventually lose his on the corpses of even more Syrians.

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