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Syria's Zero Hour is looming

It's not yet "zero hour" for Syria's regime - despite first cracks in the deceptive sense of security in Damascus. The regime's wrong reactions have left Syrians in fear and doubt, writes the Syrian author Fawwaz Haddad.

Since the protests in Syria began nearly one and a half years ago, the country has gone through turmoil and twists and turns, and both the Arab and the global diplomatic world have so far failed to find a political solution. The international community has missed out on many opportunities and has wasted months. And still they haven't come up with a way out of the Syrian crisis.

It was a peaceful uprising at first, and it has up to now kept its peaceful nature - despite all the setbacks, disappointments and dwindling hopes. People still take to the streets to demonstrate on a regular basis. On Fridays in particular, tension often rises after prayers and mourning services for the victims, where people sing songs and chant slogans that call for the end of the regime.

Dozens, sometimes hundreds of people have fallen victim every day - among them many children and women. And still, overall, the authorities have failed in their attempts to bring down the peaceful movement with the help of snipers and the imprisonment of opposition members. The authorities' violent strategy led to a militarization of the uprising and to the foundation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that aims to protect demonstrators.

Syrian soldiers started defecting from the regular forces, and desertion has since become a mass phenomenon with officers from all ranks. Entire units and military companies got together to form the Free Syrian Army, which would then engage in heavy fighting with the state army in towns such as Rastan, Homs, Talbise, Qusair, Idlib, Daraa, Duma, Zabadini, Hama and Deir ez-Zor, and in more recent times also Aleppo and Damascus. The rebels managed to seize control of strongholds, towns and villages and managed to capture large amounts of ammunition.

"Stop the killing!"

Many believe that the battles going on across the country can ultimately only be decided in Damascus, which will prove extremely difficult in itself. The brutal regime has a firm grip on Damascus and keeps the security forces' arsenals here under heavy protection. But it's no longer impossible that the battle will be decided in Damascus, considering that the FSA has managed several times to push into the city center with small units and engage in fighting there with government troops. The FSA has traditionally been greeted with tremendous sympathy by the inhabitants of Damascene outskirts, who have supported the uprising from the beginning and have continuously helped officers and soldiers defect from the national army.

Damascus - just like many other Syrian towns - positioned itself against the regime fairly early on. The population has repeatedly staged protests, albeit of a smaller size than what would have corresponded to the town's size. Young Damascenes would often join demonstrations in the regions nearby, and they would march alongside those mourning their dead in the town districts of Duma, Qabun, Qadam, Harasta and Djobar.

Young women and men would also hold symbolic manifestations of protest, where the motto was 'Stop the killing, we want to build a country for all,' even at the risk of being arrested. Graffiti sprayers would put down protest slogans on walls of houses. There would be spontaneous, so-called flying demonstrations. Those have since become a familiar sight in the streets of Damascus. After Friday prayers, people would stay for demonstrations - despite the road blocks around the houses of prayer. Those would regularly be followed by clashes in poorer neighborhoods such as Ruknaddin, Muhiddin, Midan, Qabr Atika, Bab Sridje, Mazze und Kafar Susa.

Every protester still risks being physically abused or possibly even killed after hours of torture in the notorious torture basements. In addition, government critics risk having their apartments raided, activists' offices are often searched and looted. Hundreds of university students fell victim to the brutality of the infamous Shabbiha gangs, they were held captives for weeks or months, and some never left the prison alive. Today, every town, village and neighborhood in Syria has its own martyrs, coordination councils and its own revolution stories to tell.

Security fiasco for the regime

Lately, the focus has been shifting to the capital, however. In Duma near Damascus, clashes between the army and armed opposition members reached a dangerous level of escalation. Duma is deemed a protest stronghold. The government troops attacked the town with gunfire, and hundreds were killed. Most inhabitants left the town, which today looks like a miniature version of the destroyed town of Homs. Such bloody revenge attacks were consecutively carried out in most neighborhoods around Damascus: Irbin, Zamalka, Muadhamiye, Daraya, Kiswe, Zabadani, Barze, etc.

On July 20th, just before the start of Ramadan, FSA units flocked to Damascus in large numbers from different directions. They were visibly present in Kfar Susa, Basatin al-Mazze and Midan, from where they attacked the power centers and offices of the Baath party, the security forces and secret services.

For a long time, observers described Damascus from the distance as peaceful and untouched by everything going on elsewhere in the country, with its inhabitants minding their daily business without any sorrows or fears. Now, it's become one more conflict hotspot. The military operations have turned the city districts of Midan, Mazze, al-Hadjar al-Aswad and Tadhamun into battle zones.

When the FSA made it into the heart of Damascus, near Omayyad Square and Abbasid Square, it caused difficulties for the regime's institutions because they had now come within the rebels' gunshot. Four high officers of the so-called crisis center were killed in an explosion in the building of National Security. That was yet another fiasco for the security apparatus and the national press.

First cracks

In Damascus, tension rose, and it seemed like any moment something could collapse. There were continuous reports of fighting going on in Adawi and near Sab'a Bahrat square. Gun shots could be heard from there, and from other parts of town, such as Hamidiye-Suq, Nasr Street and Abbasid Square. Reports that FSA troops had attacked tanks and military vehicles and shot down a helicopter over Qabun were confirmed. The Syrian military reacted with random shooting of the suburbs and outskirts of Damascus, causing countless inhabitants to flee. Among those concerned were people from Midan, Tadhamun and Basatin al-Mazze, who escaped to more peaceful districts such as Tidjara, Qusur, Qassaa and Abbasiyin.

The attacks left a mark with the regime, which reacted with defiance and even more determination to eliminate the armed opposition in Damascus altogether. And while the FSA could neither keep its posts nor gain more ground - officially it was called a 'tactical withdrawal' - the move heralded the final battle. The regime saw it much the same way. Without any concern for civilians it has since used draconian violence to eradicate any form of resistance. This battle will go on for quite a while yet and it could even turn into a civil war - which the regime has threatened several times. It even encouraged the population to embark on one by carrying out massacres in Hula, Qubair and Treimse. A war of religious groups is a real danger, especially in Damascus, where - so far - all population groups have been living together in peace.

'Zero hour' hasn't come yet. But there are first cracks in the deceptive sense of security, and the regime's wrong reactions have left the population fearful and doubtful. Everybody's prepared for all eventualities. The biggest fear is that there could be random shooting in the old town of Damascus, especially if you take into account the Shabbiha militia threatening to 'destroy Damascus' as a last resort.

But whether the last battle has already started or not, it has become a question of when rather than if. It may take a while yet, but it will come. The regime, and with it the international community, is relying on time playing into its hands. When the time comes the regime will know what to do. But will the international community also know what to do? The Syrians know only too well already. They will bury their dead. The resistance fighters will not refrain from paying a high price in blood, even if the victims have long since been given as number of casualties rather than individual people with names.

Syrian author Fawwaz Haddad lives in Damascus. His 10th novel "God's Soldiers" was released in 2010. A German translation will be published next year.

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