Dispatches From Damascus: A Bomb in the Old City

11/09/2012 05:50 EST | Updated 01/09/2013 05:12 EST

The Sunday before last, a bomb exploded in Bab Touma Square in the middle of the morning, killing 13 people and injuring several others. While bombings of government targets and public spaces have become increasingly common over the last few months, this attack constituted the first of its kind in the old city since Syria's political crisis began in March last year.

A local friend who lives nearby recounted hearing the blast and then seeing thick black smoke rise from the square as survivors fled the scene of the explosion in panic. Despite the loss of life, the explosive did not seem very large -- especially when compared to the device used in the attack on the security office in the neighbouring suburb of Qassaa in March this year.

On that occasion, the explosion shook houses throughout the old city and caused tiny pieces of debris to rain down on the immediate vicinity. This time the bomb, placed in a parked car, destroyed a number of other cars that were parked nearby and damaged a small building, while also shattering the windows of the police station on the other side of the square.

Almost immediately after the explosion the authorities set about the task of clearing up. The following day, the square was clean and seemed normal again. The burnt and mangled cars had been removed and the blood had been washed away.

The only sign of the previous day's attack was the lack of glass in the windows of the police station and the burn marks and structural damage to the small square building located on a patch of grass near the site of the explosion. There was also a small white flat-bed truck parked in the square that had decorated with ribbons and filled with white flowers.

The attack came despite increased security precautions throughout the old city. While it has only been in the last couple of months that security personnel have routinely been seen in the old city, the authorities have been preparing for an attack on the police station in Bab Touma Square for some time. Their increased security provisions over the last year have reflected the deteriorating situation.

As police stations and security offices in the outskirts of the capital first began to be attacked by armed militants, sandbags were placed near the entrance to prevent people from walking on the pavement directly outside. A few months later the perimeter was extended further through the use of crime-scene tape and came to encompass the parking spaces in front of the station.

More recently the police placed metal traffic barriers so as to block the street between the station and the traffic island in the middle of the square, and prevent the passage of any unauthorised vehicles. They also began to post armed guards to supervise the barrier and the rest of the square. Since the bomb attack, the authorities have also begun to station guards at the entrance of the square in order to search the cars that enter.

At the end of that week came the Islamic holiday of Eid Al Adha, and this was chosen by the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as an appropriate occasion to persuade the warring parties to call a cease-fire. It began promisingly on the Friday, the first day of the holiday, as there was very little audible sign of the shooting or explosions to which we have become accustomed in the last few months.

Early the next day, however, the truce seemed to have been forgotten. At around eight in the morning jet fighters could be heard flying above the old city on their way to attack targets in suburbs in which rebel forces could be found, and the attacks continued throughout the holiday and the rest of the week.

Over the last couple of weeks jet fighters seem to have almost completely replaced helicopters in the skies over Damascus, apparently because the rebel forces have developed the capacity to shoot down the lower-flying and slower rotor-winged craft and it is no longer safe for them to be deployed against rebel held areas. The jets are louder than the helicopters but they fly too high over the old city to be seen, before descending upon their target.

One area that has lately been under frequent attack is that of Jobar and on Friday last week the restive suburb was apparently subjected to an especially severe bombardment by the Syrian Air Force. One friend from the area that I spoke to told me that his sister had found herself stuck in her house as bombs fell nearby, unable to leave and beset by fear-induced stomach pain.

As the government continues to deploy its military against the insurrection, the opposition responds almost daily with car-bombs and targeted assassinations. On Sunday morning this week a bomb exploded in central Damascus near a large military base and the Dama Rose Hotel.

I passed the area a few hours later on the bus and saw soldiers standing or strolling around outside their base and the hotel in much greater number than usual. Several of them were in full camouflage and were wearing their helmets. A few watched the busy street, their rifles ready, as if expecting an attack from the slow-moving midday traffic.

Syria Crisis