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Andrew Sheehan


Dispatches From Damascus: The Old City Under Surveillance

Posted: 11/23/2012 2:51 pm

The Syrian government has now established a permanent network of surveillance over the old city. A combination of uniformed soldiers and plain-clothes security officers, many of them armed, now constantly monitor vehicle and pedestrian traffic passing along the narrow cobbled streets.

On my way home through the old city I often take a short cut through an archway and along a narrow lane. Like many others in Damascus' labyrinthine old quarters, it passes underneath a number of houses, and at other places is so narrow that the houses on either side seem to converge above it, so even during the day it is dark and gloomy throughout its length.

This particular lane ends about a block from the Umayyad Mosque, near a traditional bathhouse and a small perfume shop. It is beside this perfume shop that for the last few weeks there has been an improvised checkpoint consisting of a couple of soldiers sitting on plastic chairs and checking peoples' documents.

One day the pair of young soldiers that were stationed there saw me as I walked past and called me over, asking for my identification. I handed my passport to one of them and he flicked through it and then, presumably more accustomed to the identity cards that all Syrians must carry and unable to read English, held it up before me and asked me what it was. The other soldier laughed at him and called him a donkey, and the two of them traded good-humoured insults for a minute. After asking me about my business in Syria and checking through my bag, they sent me on my way.

A short distance away is the shrine of Saida Ruqayya -- an important place of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims. Before, the streets leading to the shrine were frequently packed thick and rendered almost impassable by groups of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran and even further afield, and the nearby shops thrived selling them clothes, sweets and toys.

Now the doors of the shrine are closed and many of the shops are shuttered. The street in front of the shrine is patrolled by plain-clothes security men equipped with walkie-talkies and almost every time I pass my bag is searched thoroughly.

To the east of the Umayyad Mosque there are the remains of the gates to the ancient Roman temple that once stood on the site of the mosque. Against the white stone ruins, on a spot on which the local store-holders used to sit and drink tea and play chess or backgammon on summer evenings, the army has constructed a simple shelter of metal poles and canvas sheets.

The shelter is occupied by a group of soldiers who sit here throughout the day and into the night. They take turns to sit alone a few metres away and watch the passing foot traffic, checking the identity documents of anyone unfamiliar or who seems out of place. Occasionally one of them is sent to collect a pot of tea from one of the nearby shops.

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  • Turkey

    Turkey has struck the Syrian military repeatedly in response to shelling and mortar rounds from Syria since Oct. 3, when shells from Syria struck the Turkish village of Akcakale, killing two women and three children. The incident prompted NATO to convene an emergency meeting and Turkey sent tanks and anti-aircraft batteries to the area. Turkey's military has also scrambled fighter jets after Syrian helicopters flew close to the border. <em>Caption: Turkish soldiers patrols as Syrian nationals pass the border between Syria and Turkey on November 10, 2012, near the town of Ceylanpinar. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Turkey

    There are about 120,000 Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkish camps, with up to 70,000 more living in Turkey outside the camps. Thousands more wait at the border, held up as Turkey struggles to cope with the influx. Turkey also hosts much of the opposition and rebel leadership. <em>Caption: A Syrian-Kurdish woman refugee sits in the courtyard of a house in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, bordering Syria, on November 10, 2012. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Turkey

    Turkey has called for a buffer zone in Syria where the opposition and civilians would be protected, a step that would likely require international enforcement of a no-fly zone. Russia and China have blocked robust moves against the Syrian regime at the U.N. Security Council, and the United States has been reluctant to use its military in another Mideast conflict. <em>Caption: Turkish soldiers patrols as Syrian nationals pass the border between Syria and Turkey on November 10, 2012, near the town of Ceylanpinar. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Israel

    Israel on Monday became the second country to strike the Syrian military, after Turkey. An Israeli tank hit a Syrian armored vehicle after shells from fighting in Syria exploded in Israel-controlled Golan Heights. A day earlier, Israel fired a warning shot near a group of Syrian fighters. <em>Caption: Israeli tanks, one in position, the other getting into a firing position in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian village of Bariqa, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)</em>

  • Israel

    Syrian shells have exploded inside the Golan several times in recent weeks damaging apple orchards, sparking fires and spreading panic but causing no injuries. In early November, three Syrian tanks entered the Golan demilitarized zone, and in a separate incident an Israeli patrol vehicle was peppered with bullets fired from Syria; no one was hurt in the incident and the Israeli military deemed it accidental. <em>Caption: Smoke rises after shells fired by the Syrian army explode in the Syrian village of Bariqa, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)</em>

  • Israel

    There is concern in Israel that Assad may try to spark a conflict with Israel, opening up the potential for attacks by Lebanon's militant Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel has also warned that Syria's chemical weapons could be turned on the Jewish state. Still, while no friend of Assad, Israel is also worried that if he is toppled, Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare. <em>Caption: Israeli troops and UN peacekeepers inspect on November 8, 2012 the area where three mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Alonei Habashan in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967. (JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Lebanon

    Mortars and shells from the Syrian side regularly crash in Lebanon, causing several casualties, though Lebanese forces have never fired back. More dangerously, Syria's conflict has heightened deep rivalries and sectarian tensions in its smaller neighbor. Lebanon is divided between pro-Assad and anti-Assad factions, a legacy of the nearly three decades when Damascus all but ruled Lebanon, until 2005. Assad's ally, the Hezbollah militia is Lebanon's strongest political and military movement. <em>Caption: Lebanese army commandos deploy in the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods where clashes are taking place between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli on October 23, 2012. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Lebanon

    On Oct. 19, a car bomb assassinated Lebanon's top intelligence chief, Wissam al-Hassan. Many in Lebanon blamed Syria and Hezbollah for the assassination. The northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has seen repeated clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites – the Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs. Battles in the city in May and August killed at least 23 people total and wounded dozens. <em>Caption: A memorial poster of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was assassinated Friday, hangs near the spot Friday's car bomb attack that killed Al-Hassan, in the Achrafieh district of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)</em>

  • Lebanon

    The kidnapping of Lebanese Shiites in Syria by rebels has also had repercussions in Lebanon. In May, Shiites blocked roads and burned tires in protest over the abductions, and later in the summer a powerful Shiite clan took 20 Syrians and a Turk in Lebanon captive in retaliation, all of whom have since been released. Lebanon also shelters about 100,000 Syrian refugees. <em>Caption: A Syrian man Firas Qamro, 31, who was injured during clashes that erupted between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)</em>

  • Jordan

    Jordan has taken the brunt of the refugee exodus from Syria, with some 265,000 Syrians fleeing across the border. Around 42,000 of them are housed at Zaatari, a dust-filled refugee camp, where riots have broken out several times by Syrians angry over lack of services. A growing number of stray Syrian missiles have fallen on Jordanian villages in the north in recent weeks, wounding several civilians. <em>Caption: In this Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 photo, a Jordanian army vehicle carries Syrian refugees who have fled violence in their country having crossed into Jordanian territory with their families near the town of Ramtha. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)</em>

  • Jordan

    Late last month, a Jordanian border patrol officer was killed in clashes with eight militants trying to cross into Syria. Hours earlier, Jordan announced the arrest of 11 suspected al-Qaida-linked militants allegedly planning to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in Jordan. <em>Caption: Jordanian border soldiers guard newly-arrived Syrian refugee families after they crossed the border from Tal Shehab city in Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley, into Thnebeh town, in Ramtha , Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo / Mohammad Hannon)</em>

  • Iraq

    Sunni and Shiite fighters from Iraq have made their way to Syria to join the civil war – the former on the side of the opposition, the latter siding with Assad's regime, according to Iraqi officials and Shiite militants. Sunni al-Qaida fighters are believed to be moving between Iraq and Syria, and some al-Qaida fighters in Iraq's western Anbar province have regrouped under the name of the Free Iraqi Army, a nod to the rebels' Free Syrian Army, Iraqi officials say. <em>Caption: In this Saturday, March 17, 2012 file photo, Syrian security officers gather in front the damaged building of the aviation intelligence department, which was attacked by one of two explosions in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi, File)</em>

  • Iraq

    About 49,000 Syrian refugees have temporarily resettled in Iraq, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The United States has pressured Baghdad to stop Iranian planes suspected of ferrying arms to Syria from using Iraqi airspace. Iraq has so far acknowledged only forcing two planes to land for inspection and said it didn't find any weapons either time. <em>Caption: Syrian refugees rest as they have crossed the border by the Iraqi town of Qaim, 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)</em>

At other points in the old city, soldiers have erected transparent plastic tents of different sizes in which to take shelter as the weather becomes cooler. One such tent has been placed in the small park located near the corner of Straight Street -- one of the old city's main thoroughfares -- and Bab Touma Street, which leads to the quarter of that name.

The park was once a popular and lively meeting place for foreign students and locals, famous for its mushroom-shaped seats. Now it is mostly empty in the evenings but a few months ago someone decided to enliven it by painting the grey cement mushrooms in bright colours. The soldiers stationed here often stop and search the cars heading towards the old city's eastern gate, inevitably backing up traffic in the one-lane street.

At its western end Straight Street becomes the Souq Medhat Pasha -- one of the Ottoman-era covered markets for which Damascus is famed -- which specializes in clothes and fabrics. Running perpendicular to this market is Souq Al-Bzouriyya, the spice market. At the intersection of the two, soldiers have constructed a guard post that is protected by a mound of sandbags. The emplacement is decorated by a Syrian flag stuck to the wall behind it.

The Souq Al-Bzouriyya is still lively and colourful during the day, filled with damascenes shopping for spices, herbs, preserved fruit and sweets. By night it is silent and all but deserted, but one can still smell the fragrant spices that are on display throughout the day.

One night recently I was strolling through the souq and saw a figure walking slowly ahead of me in the poorly-lit passage, an object dangling from their arm. When I drew within a few paces, he started and turned quickly to face me, watching me closely as I passed. It became apparent that he was a very young and nervous plain-clothes security officer, armed with a Kalashnikov and patrolling the streets alone.