‘I slept through it. This was a pantomime’: hardened Damascus residents shrug off overnight strikes
The attack was met with shows of defiance in some pro-regime areas … but in much of the capital life went on as normal, report Martin Chulov and Nadia al-Faour
When explosions rocked Damascus just after 4am, few went down to the streets. All over a city so accustomed to war, lights and TVs were switched on – not off. The US-led strike had been widely anticipated in the Syrian capital, its likely targets so well flagged that not many seemed to fear the consequences.
“I slept through it,” said Khalil Abu Hamza, who lives near the scene of one attack. “This was a pantomime anyway.”
Closer to the centre, Taha, 31, said a familiar series of thumps in the middle distance alerted him to the raid just before 4.30am. “I watched the news with my wife till 5.30,” he said. “No one went down from their homes. My mother, who lives across the street from us, wasn’t even bothered. Keep in mind, we are used to this. The Syrian flag has been raised in Umayyad Square as a sign of defiance.”
By mid-morning, streets in the Malki area – a stronghold of the Assad regime – were bustling and the atmosphere calm, locals said. “People are out and about today,” said one woman, Samia, 34. “The streets are full and so is the mall. Old ladies are cleaning their carpets on the balcony. I don’t know why it is being blown out of proportion; we’ve been going through war for the past seven years. It’s just like any other day. We’ve grown a thick skin.”
Nearby, a 58-year-old woman, who refused to be identified, said the tension of the past few days had quickly given way to relief when the sounds of the incoming missiles were replaced by silence. Life was going on normally today, she said. “I feel like it was done to save face. People are out on the streets today, shopping and buying groceries. This didn’t phase us.”
Abu Haidar, 62, a supporter of the Syrian leader, said he had been waiting for the attack since Donald Trump’s belligerent tweet on Wednesday. “When we heard the explosions, we knew it was the Americans. People didn’t go down to shelters, didn’t scream, didn’t hide. We were out on the roofs of our building. The Damascus sky was lit up. But we knew this was all a front.”
In a capital of divided loyalties, not everyone was pleased with the short, sharp blitz, which targeted a scientific research base in western Damascus as well as two other sites in western Syria. Some who oppose the Assad regime were hoping for more than a carefully choreographed attack causing only contained damage.
“We had high hopes,” said Hussam, 40, a supporter of the anti-Assad opposition. “Unfortunately the only thing reverberating among us is disappointment. It wasn’t as intense as they’re making it sound. We have no more faith in the international community. Trump has been saying he will bomb for days now, like he’s warning Bashar ahead of time to be safe. If I am coming to murder someone, will I tell him beforehand? It’s ridiculous, it’s nonsense. They are laughing at us.”
In Umayyad Square, a landmark in central Damascus, residents waved Syrian flags and drove around a roundabout honking horns. Soldiers in full combat uniform stood by relaxed, eyewitnesses said.
There were also small-scale celebrations in the Old City, and near the Sayeda Zainab shrine – a focal point for pro-Assad militias, especially Hezbollah, which hails its defence as a casus belli for being in Syria in the first place.
Checkpoints pepper a city still clearly embroiled in insurgency and fearing a threat from the skies. Though this was the first US blitz to hit Damascus, Israel has sent its jets to hit targets in Syria more than 100 times, and many of those strikes have been in or around the city.
In Douma, near the scene of the chemical attack that led to the strike, there was little reaction yesterday. There, as in the rest of Damascus, people were fearful about putting their name to their thoughts.
Those who have stayed – most were exiled to northern Syria after the opposition group defending Douma surrendered hours after the chemical strike – say they need to live in silence now. “I can’t talk any more,” said a resident who has been speaking to the Observer for the past two years. “Please don’t use my name any more.”
An inspection team from the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), arrived in Douma mid-morning to begin an investigation into the attack, which killed more than 42 people, and – according to reports passed to the
World Health Organisation – left more than 500 injured.
In pro-regime areas of Damascus, there is little scepticism about the Syrian and Russian claims that the attack was either staged or didn’t happen at all. In anti-Assad households, there are growing fears that investigators will never get to the truth.
Zaher al-Sakat, a former Syrian Army brigadier who helped lead the country’s chemical weapons capability until he deserted in 2013, said: “The regime will always find someone to defend their crimes. The Russians say their experts found nothing to do with chemicals. While [Sergei] Lavrov [Russia’s foreign minister] the following day said chemicals were found. What is this nonsense?
“How can people say he will not benefit by using the chemical weapons? The evidence is the displacement of the people of Douma. The regime couldn’t advance; the media spokesperson of the national guard said on TV: ‘You will see how they will fall like flies.’ Chlorine was indeed used; there were missiles carrying Sarin. We have all the documents and proof of his heinous crime.
“Now the Russians are in charge of the scene, we are sure they will manipulate the evidence. We have over 50 corpses buried in an undisclosed location that are solid proof of the attack. We will not say where because the regime will be quick to destroy the evidence.
“The Assad regime used the attack to kill the spirits of the people. It was a psychological attack to get people to give up.”
‘People didn’t go down to the shelters, didn’t scream, didn’t hide. We were out on the roofs’ Abu Haidar, Assad supporter
TOP Pro-government Damascus residents protest in Umayyad Square.
ABOVE Assad talking to the media on Friday.
A soldier filming the damaged research facility in western Damascus targeted in the airstrikes.