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Dispatches From Damascus: The Syrian Army Arrives in the Old City

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The atmosphere in Damascus' old city became just a little bit tenser at the start of the last week of Ramadan when Syrian army soldiers were deployed here for the first time since the revolution began in March last year. The soldiers were seemingly under orders to search various houses, especially those in which the few remaining foreigners live, and to set up checkpoints in the streets. Their deployment came a few days after a bomb attack against a passing army truck in the nearby Marjeh district, and amid rumours that opposition fighters were hiding among civilians and trying to incite members of minority groups living in the old city to side with the opposition against the regime.

This was a development that seemed to unsettle the owner of my house -- a regime supporter, hitherto unruffled by events, who has been predicting the imminent conclusion of the crisis in the regime's favour since it began last March. Like most Syrians he is accustomed to the presence of the various government security agencies that have long kept a close eye on the country and its citizens, and is familiar with their local representatives.

At the same time, as someone who has often rented rooms to foreign students, he is also familiar with the desire of those same agencies to monitor the activities of foreign nationals. He was there to assist me when, soon after I arrived in Damascus, a security agent came to the house in order to ask me a number of routine questions about my reasons for being in the country and my activities in countries that I had previously visited, as well as seemingly less relevant topics such as my parents' respective occupations.

To have the familiar local faces of the security services replaced by uniformed soldiers, even briefly, was understandably unsettling -- a sign of the conflict slowly drawing closer to one of the few areas of the capital fortunate enough to have so far escaped its direct consequences. He was therefore anxious that I not leave the house that morning and risk an encounter with an army checkpoint, warning that while I was well-known to the local security officials, the reactions of the newly-arrived soldiers could not be so easily predicted.

The next morning I did go out and found that the soldiers were there again, their green uniforms standing out against the mostly grey colour palette of the old city's streets and buildings, and the lighter colours worn by civilians. They were mostly spread out along one of the old city's main streets, but were also maintaining a presence in Bab Touma Square and at the beginning of the neighbouring suburb of Qassaa.

They seemed relaxed and in fairly good humour, and were mostly to be seen leaning against walls or their vehicles nursing their Kalashnikovs and calmly watching passers-by. Some were chatting amiably with locals in side streets, and I saw one young soldier strolling along the street nonchalantly carrying an RPG launcher.

Some of them seemed unfamiliar with the area, though: I saw a couple of soldiers stop a passing pair of girls to ask them which exact quarter of the old city they were in. The next day they were gone, and the old city passed what remained of the last week of Ramadan in its usual state of relative calm, watched over by plain-clothes security officers and punctuated by the sounds of violence in other suburbs.