The explosion tore through the night as I sat with friends playing cards around a table in the Jaramana suburb of Damascus on August 27. Rushing to the balcony I saw a car passing below with its shattered front-end in flames. The driver was still alive, steering the vehicle away from parked cars lining the road. Gunmen in tracksuits appeared instantly as a dozen neighborhood youth chased the vehicle until it stopped, dead, 40 meters up the road. The air smelled of smoke and gunpowder.
Outside there was mayhem as a crowd swelled to some 60 men. I was on the street starring at a parked car with smashed windows, flat tires and caved-in doors when four shots rang out into the sky: “Please leave for your own safety, intelligence officers will handle this, don’t panic…” a voice boomed over a loudspeaker. Gunmen throughout the area set up roadblocks, while others guarded and inspected the charred vehicle.
It would be hours before the body was removed. His name was Afif al-Shami. While apparently assassinated, no one seemed to know whether he had been pro or anti regime — what I did hear was the car had been owned by a well-known local member of the Shabiha (or government-backed militia) who had only just recently sold it to the unlucky driver. Simultaneously, a kilometer away in Kornish Shamali, in front of Maoone Hospital, another car had exploded, assassinating a member of the armed “pro-regime popular committees.”
Jaramana had until these events largely been spared from the violence and indeed had the reputation as a refuge, with Syrians fleeing fighting in surrounding areas to seek shelter here. Traditionally a mixed-sect neighborhood of Christians and Druze, the area is generally considered supportive of President Bashar al-Assad.
The morning after the assassination a local Sheikh on a loudspeaker curiously announced the funeral of “one martyr only”. An old custom in Jaramana is to publicly announce deaths so people can know to attend the funeral. That afternoon around 3 p.m., however, as those mourners gathered their procession was struck by a car bomb. Initial reports indicated 12 dead and 48 injured; by the next day 27 people were reported killed.
After this explosion Jaramana went on lock-down — men with Kalashnikovs and shotguns manned barricades on every street, searching cars and bags and checking identification cards. As I passed one checkpoint I heard an Armenian youth say he was on guard there with his gun “to defend Jaramana.” The connotations shook me. The saying, “to defend Jaramana”, harkens back to a time a century ago when a lack of security led locals to organize neighborhood militias to protect themselves. And now today, these two minorities, Druze and Syrian Armenians, are again closing ranks around their shared neighborhood to defend it from the perceived “Islamic threat”.
A week later, on September 3, a taxi exploded near a preschool in Jaramana’s Wahde area, killing nine, mostly children, as well as a Druze Sheikh, while injuring another 25. Local media said another bomb was found nearby and defused.
Despite what the international media might say, from what I see in Damascus the situation has not yet sunk into a civil war — that will be far more bloody. These people are not interested in attacking anyone; their concern is simply to defend themselves. The regime, however, is preparing for all-out civil war, and these bombings play directly to the its interests.
The immediate impact is to allow the regime to point the finger and distract attention away from its own atrocities, which are more frequent and brutal by the day. The attack on the funeral was also the first of its kind — it targeted the funeral of a regime supporter who was also from the Druze sect, while most of the victims were Druze as well.
The repercussions of these attacks reach far beyond Damascus and help the regime continue to divide the countryside along sectarian lines. The day after the funeral bombing rumours swirled that bus-loads of armed men from the mostly Druze city of Sweida, near the border with Jordan, had arrived in the capital to support and protect their relatives in Jaramana.
This is the first time Syria’s Druze population at large have entered into the evolving conflict’s field of play, and it has placed them squarely in the regime’s corner with many of the other minority sects, further delegitimizing the rebels inside Syria as leading a Sunni-only revolution. This sectarian entrenchment can only darken Syria’s prospects and lay another layer of complexity on the country’s systematic dissolution.
“Basel Saad” is a Syrian who lives in Damascus. (To protect the writer’s identity, a pseudonym has been used.)