Middle East

Syria unrest: Assad losing grip on Damascus suburb Saqba

Anti-Assad fighters in Saqba
Image caption Free Syria Army fighters say they are protecting local people in Saqba

The BBC has seen more evidence of the extent to which the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost control of sections of the poor suburbs of Damascus.

We had no luck following Arab League observers. They drove round a middle class, largely Christian and largely pro-Assad neighbourhood in the centre of the capital, without stopping, before returning to their hotel with their escort of regime security men.

So a convoy of journalists, without regime minders, went alone to Saqba, a poor district about 20 minutes from central Damascus - where a funeral was due to take place of a man killed by the Assad regime's forces.

Once we left the centre we saw no regime security men. Then on the edge of Saqba we came upon several dozen armed and masked fighters from the Free Syria Army (FSA).

Bullet holes

Image caption President Assad has his own support in Damascus

An older man - who said he had been a general in the Syrian army - was in charge.

He wasn't masked, had a stubbly, scarred face and was carrying a hand grenade.

His men had sandbagged positions, and said they were protecting the local people.

They took us deeper into Saqba where several thousand local men had gathered, marching through the streets and chanting anti-regime slogans, some calling for President Assad's execution.

They processed the body of the dead man on an open stretcher.

Local people said that the intelligence services and police conducted operations in the area, sometimes a couple of times a week, sometimes every night. They pointed out bullet holes in lamp posts.

It's clear that the regime forces, when they deploy enough men, can enter the rebellious suburbs of Damascus.

But they do not appear to have the force to hold them.

It is equally clear that the only way the president can enforce his authority in Saqba, and other suburbs of the city, is through the barrel of a gun.

His regime faces opposition in the capital that is increasingly armed and organised.

This does not mean that the president is about to fall. He has his own hardcore support, based on minority communities - his own Alawites, Christians, some Druze and Kurds, and also well-off Sunnis.

Mr Assad also has well-armed forces - in and out of uniform.

It looks as if Syria faces more blood and more bitterness.