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Dispatches From Damascus: "Assad! -- Or We Destroy the Country"

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As I lay in bed late one night last week yet another gun fight broke out in the centre of the city between the regime and opposition forces. I was startled as, instead of the muffled boom and pop of distant gunfire to which I am more accustomed, I could hear the sharply defined crack of something closer. The exchange of gunfire continued for some time before gradually petering out.

I later learned that the encounter had taken place in Baghdad Street -- a major thoroughfare in the centre of the capital, a few blocks north of the old city. The long street hosts at least one of Damascus' myriad security service offices and as a result has been a target for opposition bombings and attacks on a number of occasions.

The following night I was at home watching Arabic music videos on television with a Syrian housemate and his friend. They started talking about the violence of the night before and it turned out that my housemate's friend lived in the area in which the fighting had taken place.

They were laughing about how one of his older relatives, who is apparently somewhat overweight, had been so unwise as to leave his house during the course of the fighting. He had been mistaken for a combatant by one side or the other and had consequently been shot at and wounded in one of his ample buttocks.

Early last Wednesday morning the opposition staged an attack on the Defence Ministry building in Umayyad Square, which kicked off with a loud explosion. I had only just woken up when I heard the first of what was to be a series of explosions interspersed with gunfire. It was the loudest that I had heard for several months and it was immediately apparent that something big was happening.

Later, a regime television channel screened surveillance video footage of the attack. A truck could be seen approaching the building and drawing to a halt. Before it had stopped completely the driver reached out to press some kind of button and set off a powerful explosive hidden in the truck which obliterated him and a portion of the nearby building. Meanwhile, a cyclist could be seen passing by unharmed on the other side of the street.

When a friend of mine saw this video he immediately recognized the place where the explosion had been staged. A few days earlier he had been passing the same building in a taxi and had seen a soldier friend of his -- who is sometimes assigned to guard that particular building -- standing in that exact spot. Luckily his friend was not on duty on the morning of the attack.

On Tuesday this week the government used its helicopters attack the suburb of Jobar. On their way to their targets a couple of them swooped and turned low over the old city, quite close to my house. Their dark grey bodies stood out against the light grey of the overcast sky, and the odd, metallic grinding sound that their heavy machine guns make as they are fired could be heard clearly.

Meanwhile, in the old city, the military presence has become more noticeable. For months there have been certain places here at which armed men, dressed in plain clothes underneath khaki webbing -- either civilian members of popular defence committees or plain-clothes security agents -- can be seen at night. They sit there on plastic chairs, watching passers-by, and occasionally asking people for their documents or providing assistance with directions to anyone who happens to be lost.

Lately there have also been certain street corners where one would see uniformed soldiers stationed for a day or two at a time. Now, however, these corners seem to be permanently occupied by soldiers, and sometimes by plain-clothes security men as well. The soldiers seem, for the most part, to be in fairly good humour and sit in their chairs chatting to locals and occasionally drinking tea.

While sitting down they leave their ubiquitous Kalashnikovs propped up vertically next to their chairs or lying flat across their laps. While standing up or walking around, though, they often carry them with one hand, and sometimes wave them around or gesture with them, in a casual manner completely at odds with my, admittedly limited, experience of seeing soldiers or police officers in the west handle automatic weapons.

To the East of the old city there is a busy road that tanks and other military vehicles often drive along as they travel between the nearest base and whichever suburb they happen to be fighting in on a given day. Recently, a friend saw a tank drive down this road in a convoy with some other vehicles. On its side its crew had had spray-painted, in big white Arabic letters, "Assad! -- or we destroy the country."