Business as usual in Damascus as Assad remains defiant
Military action against Syria brings warnings from Iran and most Arab governments
Syrians gather in Umayyad Square, Damascus, on April 14th to condemn the strikes by the US, Britain and France against the Syrian regime. Photograph: Getty Images
Shocked awake before dawn on Saturday by the reverberating explosions of 76 missiles striking a research facility at Barzeh northeast of the capital, the people of Damascus switched on televisions and scanned satellite channels to follow the action.
As soon as they learned the strikes had been carefully choreographed and limited to three suspected chemical weapons targets, Damascenes resumed normal life. Many credited Russian threats of retaliation for restraining the western powers.
Pro-government activists quickly converged on iconic Umayyad Square to protest, brandishing Syrian flags and proclaiming support for President Bashar al-Assad. He was pictured on state television entering the vast glass hall at the presidential palace en route to his office.
Businesswoman Nadine told The Irish Times by phone that she “stayed in bed” while husband Ayman and son Jaafar surfed TV coverage. At mid-morning she drove to her shop and cafe for scheduled meetings.
Since the weather was fine, families took advantage of Saturday’s holiday to go to the capital’s many parks or shop in Souq al-Hamidiyah, its high barrel roof pierced with bullet holes.
On Sunday morning Christians flocked to churches near the St Thomas and eastern gates of the Old City which abuts the Ghouta countryside. Jihadis based there who had lobbed mortars into these neighbourhoods on Sundays during services had either surrendered and opted for amnesty or were evacuated by bus to the Turkish-occupied area in the north.
Yusif, a merchant, said, “peace has come to the Old City. There’s a lot of traffic. Shops are open.” Between 25-30 of the 35 registered children had returned to his wife’s kindergarten.
Although the national guard remains poised to oust Isis fighters from the last Damascus suburbs held by government opponents, he said these suburbs constituted a “cold area”.
“Isis does not attack Damascus. Its fighters know there is no place they can go. No one will accept them.”
Assad’s Syrian opponents were deeply disappointed the strikes did not target the military or government, and were not intended to alter the course of the war, which Assad has been winning.
Assad adopted a defiant tone, calling the strikes “aggression”, and vowed to crush “terrorism in every inch of the country”.
His ally, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, branded as “criminals” the three western leaders involved.
Lebanese president Michel Aoun said Beirut rejected “attacks on any Arab state no matter what the reasons” , and warned against deeper western involvement in Syrian affairs. He argued that missile strikes “will not contribute” to a political solution in Syria.
Egypt’s foreign ministry expressed “concern over the escalation in Syria”, and called for a political solution to end the war. Jordan adopted a similar approach.
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit blamed “all the parties” involved in the Syrian conflict for the “deterioration of the situation”.
Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmad Mahjoub said the strikes “threaten the security and stability of the region” by prompting a resurgence of Isis. He urged the Arab summit meeting on Sunday in Saudi Arabia to “adopt a clear position concerning this dangerous development”.
However, the Saudi foreign ministry declared: “We fully support military operations against military targets in Syria”, indicating wider strikes would have been welcome.
A declaration to be adopted by Arab rulers called for a negotiated settlement which would preserve the unity and territorial integrity of Syria. Some of the 22 leaders had suggested Syria should no longer be suspended, and Assad should be invited to attend. The Saudi hosts declined.