In Zamalka, a district of eastern Ghouta in Damascus, children surviving last week's chemical attacks play in the ruins of their houses, using shards and fragments of missiles as toys. They wait along with the rest of their extended families for a man to smuggle them out of Syria, away from a district where only a few hundred have chosen to remain. Life was already unbearable before the chemical attack. The street they lived on had been blitzed and shelled on a daily basis as the rubble of concrete debris served as instant mausoleums for whole families. The horrifying attack on August 21 that claimed 1446 documented casualties pushed tens of thousands of eastern Ghouta residents to flee Syria.. Zamalka has become a city of ghosts while the humanitarian disaster of the displaced is no less egregious than suffocation by death.
As the world holds its collective breath in anticipation of western military intervention, the children of Zamalka have already lost everything and the prospect of an international response means nothing to them. They are not alone as millions of children have been suffering the same for the last two years.
In the early phases of the revolution, some Syrians believed that the solution to the conflict was an international intervention to topple the throne of Bashar al-Assad and dismantle his security apparatus. But the red line was passed long ago.
Syrian preparations for the intervention
In Mazzeh 86 – a pro-regime neighborhood whose residents are mainly from the coastal mountain region – international intervention is a clear declaration of war. Joining the national defense army – the shabiha by any other name – has become a patriotic national duty more than ever. In am emptied primary school in Mazzeh 86, tens of young girls have left their studies and started military training to join the national defense army. They are excited to carry weapons and fight for Syria. Amina 19 years old said:"I have always watched the army's heroic operations against terrorists and wanted to join it. I want to defend my country and family and this is the least we can do". The mother while hugging her daughter and asking her what she learned today, seems very proud and optimistic: "either living with dignity or martyrdom for the sake of an honourable Syria. It's time to return the favour to our president".
Such is mobilization in places like Mazzeh 86 and Dahiyyat al-Assad where an Alawi presence is predominant. Other minorities are showing a different kind of mobilization: a return to their home villages.
Kamal is a Kurdish journalist and one of the few Kurds still living in Mazzeh 86. He told me:"most Kurds here have travelled back to their original villages in north east Syria even though there is no electricity, water supplies or services. Numerous shops on my street are closed and left empty after their owners decided to leave, even though some of them have lived here all their lives. I won't leave Damascus but it has become dangerous to live in Mazzeh 86 where every stranger or non-Alawi is suspected [of being anti-regime]. On top of all this, there are growing fears of a curfew being imposed if any military intervention is to be launched".
The Druze are a majority in the district of Jaramana south of Damascus. Yet, hundreds chose to go back to the city of Sweida, their historical stronghold in the south of Syria. Hussam is a teacher, born and raised in Jaramana, who chose to leave in the end for the sake of his wife and son's security: "I'm not afraid for myself but I have a responsibility towards my family. It is much safer for them to stay amongst our relatives until we find out what will happen next".
For those who are born and bred in Damascus the only thing they can do is move from sensitive military locations into districts further away. Basel is a Damascene dentist whose house faces the military airport of Mazzeh:"I'm moving with my family to my in-law's house in Mashrou'a Dommar. Any bullet aimed at the airport is a threat to hundreds of families who live just across the highway from the Mazzeh airport. I don't even want to start thinking about what a Tomahawk missile would do".
Official army preparations for the intervention
No one believes that the regime will be able to defend itself or its soldiers. The only realistic option it has is to bunker down. There has been a flurry of military activity where battalions have moved into the city centre - garrisoning civilian areas such as Damascus University campus and the city's public sports complex; and continuing to use civilians as human shields - a common practice on the part of the regime. Detention centres located at security branches and military facilities have been used since the beginning of the revolution. The lives of the many thousands of detainees imprisoned in such locations will almost certainly be at risk if any military attack on these facilities is to take place.
The absurdity of war continues, with American officials declaring that the attack is not about overthrowing the regime but rather a response to the regime having crossed the ‘red line’. The question remains about the efficacy of this predicted military intervention whose supposed aim is to punish the al-Assad regime for using chemical weapons. This amounts to no more than a slap on the wrist for the regime, which will survive – coming out of the attack with its “anti-imperialist” credentials intact and its narrative of the conflict confirmed. At closer inspection, it seems the only people being punished here are once again ordinary Syrians. The outcome of this slap on the wrist will only serve to embolden the brutality of this regime. The proposed intervention – if it comes to pass – will only be another chapter in the Syrian book of death and displacement.
Thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece