Apart from the obvious point that President Bashar al Assad and his regime are based there, there are other reasons why Damascus holds the key to a tipping point in the Syria conflict. The heavy fighting in Damascus over the last few days is heralding a distinct change in the Syrian unrest (or I should now say Civil War) with large parts of central Damascus becoming increasingly volatile. Intense fighting and shelling has been recorded in the districts of; Kafr Souseh, Midan, Kaboun, Al Tadamun and most worryingly Al Baghdadi Street, just a stone’s throw from the historic old city of Damascus.
This main thoroughfare is key in the city. Linking the western parts of the city, with the North and Eastern parts, it is a vital for traffic movement around the city. Taxis, buses and goods vehicles use the street for their daily needs and any disruption on this street can cause huge delays (I should know, I travelled down it everyday for 9 months and sometimes spent 40 minutes on the street if the traffic was bad). This and the recent fighting in other areas will put even more strain on an already strained capital.
Many businessmen and merchants are feeling the strain of the civil war on their livelihoods. Business is down, the Syrian economy is getting worse and customers are staying at home. This latest round of violence in the centre of Damascus will be hugely affecting customers and supplies and could provide the breaking point needed for many of these influential people and their followers to turn against Assad (it is interesting to note that these men do have influence, as in the 1980s these men helped bring calm to Damascus after anger over the Hama massacre, an action, that, by all accounts prevented the Assad regime from faltering from the fallout).
Also worrying with the fighting in Al Baghdadi street is that it is getting closer to the historic old city. The winding medieval streets almost represent a microcosm of Syrian society, with Shi’a, Sunni and Christians all sharing this densely packed area. Even in May 2011, armed neighbourhood gangs were forming at each street corner, checking everyone who came in and out (even me!), which has continued long after I left. Any little spark here could easily set off sectarian clashes in the city that would be hard to return from.
Finally, in Damascus there are around 300,000 Alawites living that represent some of the core supporters of President Assad. With this minority threatened by the recent fighting many could flee, leaving Assad with far less support in the capital than he is used to. But for the moment they are standing by him but for how long is certainly dictated by the rebels who are tightening the noose on the Assad regime.
J Robinson – Twitter: @jprobinsons
My post first appeared on The Old UAR, a blog focusing on a wide range of topics currently happening in the Middle East, run by Jonathan Bertman.