In Syria, pro-Assad Damascus suburb is under siege

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Jaramana residents believe rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad are the culprit in the recent deadly car bombings.

 

They were cleaning up the debris the other day at Alaa’s falafel shop, its windows blown out and its interior in shambles after a car bomb detonated in Swords Square, the heart of this bustling Damascus suburb.

“They came to Syria to do jihad,” said one distraught resident, whose in-law was among 10 killed in the July 25 blast. “Pardon me, but why don’t they go to Israel to do their jihad?”

This teeming district, its population swelled by residents fleeing violence elsewhere in the country because of its relative sense of security, is now under attack.

Just 12 days after the blast hit the main square, an even more deadly car bomb exploded a few blocks away, killing 18 people and wounding dozens more.

Both devices were designed to inflict maximum damage on the civilian population. The scenario is reminiscent of the car bombings that have devastated neighboring Iraq for the last decade.

A black-and-white funeral poster announced the death of a Christian woman, Helweh Hanna, mother of three. She happened to be passing by when the bomb went off July 25, residents said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks in the district with more than 500,000 residents. Each side in the Syrian conflict blames the other. The opposition says the government of President Bashar Assad is masterminding the violence here and in other pro-Assad districts in a perverse strategy to sow sectarian fear and distrust for the rebels.

But residents interviewed say they have no doubt as to the culprit: rebels fighting to overthrow Assad. To furious inhabitants, it makes no difference whether the attackers were directly affiliated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. Like the government, many here lump the disparate rebel blocs under the umbrella of Al Nusra Front, a powerful Islamist faction that Washington calls a terrorist group and Al Qaeda offshoot.

The prevalent view among many interviewed here is that the various rebel brigades are working in concert with the West, Turkey and Persian Gulf nations to destroy what little peace remains in this traumatized nation.

“May God destroy their hands,” one disgusted woman said of the anonymous bombers, as she and a friend surveyed a devastated row of shops — including a tire repair spot, a butcher and a vegetable stand — across the street from Alaa’s falafel place. “How can we feel safe anymore?” asked the woman, who, like others interviewed, declined to give her name for security reasons.

The strategic suburb southeast of the capital, along the main route to Damascus’ international airport, has remained a bastion of support for Assad, denying the rebels a potentially major access point to the capital or an opportunity to consolidate forces. This appears to have frustrated the armed opposition. Many here see the surge in attacks as payback for Jaramana’s steadfast loyalist stance.

“Jaramana will never be a hospitable atmosphere for the armed groups,” said Father Gabriel Daoud, a Syriac Orthodox Christian priest in the area. “They know that if they come here they will perish.”

Jaramana, its population traditionally composed of Druze and Christian minorities, has been a bulwark against the rebel advance and a steady source of volunteers for the government side. Most Syrian rebels are from the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority.

Inside Jaramana’s confines, militiamen staff checkpoints and patrol the streets, eyeing strangers and their vehicles closely and questioning anyone who doesn’t seem to belong. The militiamen coordinate closely with the Syrian army. A strict security regime is in place; plainclothes surveillance teams watch who comes and goes.

Still, the suburb bustles with flourishing shops, gaggles of pedestrians and heavy traffic. Restaurants, fast-food joints and liquor stores did a brisk business, busy even during the just-concluded Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Jaramana is nothing like some of the capital’s haunting Sunni-dominated suburbs, such as Dariya, Qaboun and Duma, sites of near-daily combat and bombardment.

One pro-government militia in Jaramana operates out of a dry-cleaning shop. Inside, husky militiamen stay in touch with operatives in the field on two-way radios and cellphones. In the back, a young man dutifully irons khaki uniforms. A visiting Druze sheik wearing a skullcap and spectacles sits on a chair, fingering his beads, saying little.

But authorities and residents acknowledge it is virtually impossible to stop every attack in such a large area flanked by rebel-friendly districts.

“How can we provide 100% security, with so many new people fleeing the war coming to live here?” asked Sheik Abul-Latif Kurbaj, a Druze elder in Jaramana, interviewed in his second-floor office above a vegetable shop. “The armed groups have sentenced the people of Jaramana to death.”

On the wall in the well-appointed office was a stylized painting of an illustrious Druze hero from a 19th century battle. He is depicted stuffing his turban into an enemy cannon and brandishing his curved sword, giving his life to thwart the invaders of the Druze homeland in what is now southern Syria.

“Our young men are ready to defend our homes, in concert with our Christian brothers,” said Kurbaj, a short, stout man wearing traditional baggy trousers and given to lengthy digressions on Druze history and culture. “We want change and democracy and an end to corruption. We have called for these changes for a long time. But we don’t agree with destroying the country.”

Jaramana was long a sort of Syrian melting pot, absorbing people of many sects, beliefs and nationalities, including tens of thousands of refugees from the violence in Iraq.

Many here suspect that the recent car bombs were manufactured in Jaramana from munitions smuggled into the district. Suspicious cars and drivers, they say, would probably have attracted attention. If true, it is an especially disturbing scenario: The attackers are living in Jaramana, sleeper cells ready to attack again.

Distrust has fallen on some new residents, mostly Sunnis, from war-torn zones such as the eastern region of Ghouta, next to Jaramana. Some displaced people who had resettled in Jaramana have been evicted because of suspected links to rebels, according to several residents here, even as more displaced Syrians arrive daily.

“Of course we cannot refuse to give shelter and food to people in need: This is our creed,” says Kurbaj. “But while we are taking care of the women and children, the men are fighting jihad against us. Even our greatest enemy, Israel, has not treated us the way these infidels have behaved.”

Some residents cannot hold back their fury at the U.S. government, which many in Jaramana see as backing groups targeting civilians. Some stressed that the violence only bolstered their support for Assad, a sentiment commonly expressed in pro-government districts.

“I pray a hundred times a day that America will experience the terror that we are experiencing!” shouted an enraged owner of a women’s clothing boutique, situated across the street from the site where a mortar shell, presumably fired by rebels, struck July 25, the same day as the car bombing, killing three passersby. “We are in great pain. We are dying 100 deaths a day in Syria now.”

At Alaa’s falafel emporium, a neighborhood fixture, workers were clearing a chaotic jumble of broken glass, dangling wires and smashed walls. Upstairs, the Cleopatra photo shop’s windows and frames had been blown out.

“Whoever did this committed a blasphemy,” said Abu Hassan, a falafel shop employee who was wounded by shrapnel from the blast, obliging him to wear a bandage over his left eye as he assisted in the cleanup.

Owner Afif Zeino, who has been selling falafel at the busy spot for 21 years, insisted he would not be driven away.

“We will renovate, fix everything up, and continue our business,” Zeino said as he stood on shards of glass. “Our families and livelihoods are here in Jaramana.”

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