Middle East

Syria conflict: Nervousness grips Damascus once again

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Media captionThe BBC's Jeremy Bowen: "Sometimes Damascus doesn't look like a wartime city. But all this is an illusion of normality"

The man squeezing pomegranates stands in the shade close to the walls of the Umayyad Mosque, in the heart of the old city of Damascus.

He hands me a glass of the pink, frothing juice, cooled with flakes he carved off a big block of ice, smiles and refuses to take any money.

A muezzin with a lilting, haunting tone calls the faithful to prayer, and his voice merges with salvoes of artillery fire echoing around the city walls.

Men and women, even children, are so used to the sound of shelling that they stopped flinching at the noise a long time ago.

At any rate, they do in Damascus proper, which is controlled by the regime.

This weekend, children, watched by parents on sun beds, splashed around in the pool of the hotel used by the United Nations relief staff and by foreign correspondents.

None of the families even looked up every time one of the government batteries, not far away, boomed like a demented bass drum.

Image caption Syria remains united behind President Assad, says one Damascene

The vast majority of the shellfire is going out from the regime's positions.

The rebels, much better armed now, fire some mortars back, which can be deadly, but have a shorter range than the Syrian army's artillery.

It is very different in the outer suburbs, held by the rebels, which are the targets of the shelling. Among them are the places hit by the chemical weapons attack.

On previous trips to Damascus, I have been to some of them, so battered now by war that almost no building is undamaged, and some streets are impassable because of the rubble.

No-one goes to the swimming pool there. Most of the civilians have left, becoming part of the more than four million people displaced within Syria, or the two million plus who have fled the country to become refugees.

Outside the Umayyad mosque, a young man called Walid, his hair slicked back with wet-look gel, stops on his way to prayer. Like many people in Damascus at the end of the week, he has been following the G-20 conference in St Petersburg on television.

"Yes, I know the American president wants to bomb us, but we're too strong, because we're backed by the Chinese and the Russians. And we're united behind President [Bashar al-]Assad."

A Muslim cleric visiting from Lebanon, Sheikh Abdul Salim al-Harash, says he is glad the Americans no longer have it all their own way.

"These days, other countries like Russia, South Africa and India can take decisions, and they're against military action."

Black market

The fact is though that Syria is still waiting for the results of decisions made elsewhere, most critically in Washington DC.

A week ago, when it looked as if US President Barack Obama was on the point of ordering an attack, government-controlled Damascus was tense and unhappy.

I saw what that meant at a bakery. Syrians love their fragrant, steaming piles of flat bread, and thanks to government subsidies each piece costs less than £0.10 ($0.16) at state-owned bakeries.

Unruly queues were spilling out of the bakery and down the street. Young men and boys were climbing in over its steel barred gates to outflank the women and older men who were trying to push their way up the steps to the bread window.

Image caption Syrians love their fragrant, steaming piles of flat bread, the price of which is subsidised by the government

A middle-aged woman in a headscarf and dressed in a black abaya had tears of anger and frustration rolling down her face after she was jostled out of the bread line. She pointed at men emerging with big piles of bread. The woman, who did not want to give her name, said they were black marketeers who resold the bread for two or three times the price.

The mood lifted once President Obama ordered the vote in the US Congress on military action. Now though, the edgy nervousness is coming back as the vote approaches.

Once again, Damascenes are asking whether a toxic cloud might poison them if an American missile hits a chemical weapons site, or whether the armed rebels in the suburbs would use an American attack to try to push closer to the regime's centres of power.

One Syrian, well connected to the regime, asked me what it was like to be in a city bombed by American cruise missiles.

I told him what I had seen in Baghdad, Iraq, and Tripoli, Libya, which was that the missiles were accurate and powerful, and the explosions would be louder than the worst thunderclaps he had ever heard. The important thing, I told him, was to stay clear of likely targets, places like military bases and key regime buildings.

Proxy war

Whichever way the US Congress votes, the war in Syria is entering a new phase.

Jihadists, allied or affiliated with al-Qaeda, are increasingly prominent among the armed rebels. But more than ever, Syria has become a proxy war, a boxing ring with no rules in which regional powers use Syrians to fight their battles.

The most significant is between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who compete for influence from Lebanon down to the Gulf. The Saudis back the insurrection, Iran is the Assad regime's closest strategic partner.

But to add another layer of trouble, the President of the United States wants to mount an attack on the regime. Mr Obama will not say publicly whether he will go ahead with the attack, using his presidential prerogatives, if he loses the vote.

Even if he accepts a veto from Congress, it will not mean an end to American involvement. He will still work to punish the regime for what he says was an unforgiveable crime, which President Assad's men say was carried out by the rebels.

Damascus is an ancient city that has seen generations of wars. Mark Twain wrote that in Damascus, years were only moments. Time, he said, was measured by the empires the city has seen rise and fall.

President Assad must be hoping that this crisis will be a way station in America's decline in the Middle East. President Obama believes that action is necessary or others will dare to call the bluff of the most powerful nation on earth.

Every house and block of flats in Damascus bristles with TV satellite dishes. Official Syrian television serves up nationalistic homages to the bravery of the armed forces.

But plenty of the TVs in Damascus in the next week will be tuned to international news channels as Syrians follow the debate in Washington, and try to assess exactly what the man in the Oval Office might send their way.