DAMASCUS, Syria -- Few things about life in the streets of Damascus give any sense that a countdown has begun for a NATO-led strike against Syria. Shops are open late into the evening and young couples stroll the streets. At the supermarket, there are no signs of people hoarding food or buying extra water in a panic.
But Damascenes are starting to feel the pressure. Many expect an imminent strike more fierce than any they have seen so far during the country’s uprising-turned-civil war, now in its third year. Few feel they can decipher the purpose of such a strike, or what might unfold in its aftermath.
Abu Mohammad, a retired civil servant and a widower, recalled the time when Israel struck military targets near his home on the outskirts of Damascus. He and other Damascenes, including those who live as far away as in the heart of the capital, describe the Israeli air raid that May night as something akin to an earthquake.
“It was swift and powerful. And this time with NATO, I expect it’ll be similar. The earth will shake beneath our feet,” Abu Mohammad said.
For Motaz, a 42-year-old physical therapist who did not give his full name, the memory of that dreadful night remains vivid, and like many Damascenes, he feels he has nowhere to hide from the coming attack.
“We live in the capital, and every block has a legitimate target,” Motaz said. “For example, are they going to hit the government intelligence center next to my home? What about the military headquarters near my in-laws?”
He added that he would leave the country if he could, but he has no place to go, which echoed a general sentiment in Damascus these days.
Damascenes with the means to leave the country are long gone. Others unfortunate enough to get displaced from their homes have moved from suburb to suburb, trying to stay a step ahead of the spreading violence. Those who lack the means to leave but are lucky enough not to have been displaced are here to stay. They are mostly Damascenes who live inside an area called The Square of Security, consisting of a dozen or so neighborhoods, which includes major government buildings, embassies and the presidential residence.
During a trip to the passport renewal agency in downtown Damascus on Tuesday, the scene was unexpectedly relaxed. Though dozens of people stood in line waiting for their new passports, employees pointed out that it was actually a slow day.
“It’s been slow for a while,” said one employee, explaining that for months the agency had barely kept up with the demand to issue new passports to fleeing citizens. No longer.
For everyone, regardless of political orientation, stance toward the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, or feelings about a NATO strike, one question seems to linger in mind: What will come of such a strike?
Many invoke memories from the U.S. war in Iraq and the NATO strikes on Libya.
Abu Mohammad pointed out that military strikes with the ferocity of “that Israeli strike” would definitely result in many civilian casualties, “just like in Iraq and Libya.” In both of those cases, the strikes were instrumental in toppling dictators, though most analysts doubt that will not be a direct consequence of the planned attack on Syria.
The death toll in Syria’s ongoing civil war averages between 100 and 200 every day, including dozens killed by government aerial bombardment.
Abu Mohammad, though he supports the NATO strike, echoes the fears of many Damascenes that such a hit might raise the death toll well into the thousands. “Besides, what is the objective?” he adds, also echoing the general mood in Damascus.
Motaz also draws upon the Iraq war and Libya. But, he says, he does not see how a strike against Syria might resemble them.
“Unlike Iraq, the U.S. is not coming to occupy us. Unlike Libya, they’re not coming to take out the leader,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still one million percent for the strike, but what’s going to happen afterwards? The strike will make the government weaker in the face of the rebels. And then what? Will Jabhat al Nusra then enter Damascus?”
Jabhat al Nusra is an al Qaeda-affiliated group that seemed to debut in Syria several months ago, answering a call for jihad to aid the rebels against government troops. It is not a popular group among Syrians, and in the few places where it reigns (such as Al Raqa, the only provincial capital not under the control of the Syrian government), Al Nusra has come up against major resistance from locals who view it with disdain for its fundamentalism. Among its unpopular deeds are the destruction of a Sufi shrine revered by the locals and coaxing women to wear the burka, thus offending the local population that already considers itself conservative and modest.
Groups such as Al Nusra have long been used by the Syrian regime as a way to instill fear, promising that “terrorists and Islamists will rule Syria” if Assad should ever fall.
Many anti-government Syrians viewed such statements as the regime’s thinly disguised threat to unleash “terrorists” it already has in its prisons in order to wreak havoc on society, basically “proving” that Islamists are the only other alternative to Assad.
Now, Syrians are hearing a different sort of disguised threat, delivered earlier this week by Syria’s information minister, who echoed Tehran. “If the West strikes us, balls of fire will unleash upon the region,” he said.
Damascenes cannot agree on how to interpret such a threat.
“Will Iran attack Israel? If so, then will the U.S. attack Iran? If so, then will Iran bomb Saudi Arabia?” Motaz asked. “Are we talking World War III? We simply don’t know.”