08/20/2012 12:07 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Dispatches From Damascus: Syrian Civilians Are Armed and Nervous

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A Syrian woman reacts after an air strike in the town of Azaz, near the northern restive Syrian city of Aleppo, on August 15, 2012. UN investigators said the Syrian regime had committed crimes against humanity, as at least 20 people were reported killed in a major air strike in a rebel bastion in the north. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)

Residents of Damascus' old city have long been accustomed to hearing explosions and gunfire in the distance as loyalist and opposition forces clash in other parts of the city. As the sound of gunfire rang out across the old city of Damascus late one night earlier this month, though, it may have seemed that the opposition had finally managed to stage an attack on one of the Christian quarters at the heart of the capital. Instead, the brief gunfight was the result of a misunderstanding -- one made more likely and potentially lethal by the actions of the regime.

In recent weeks the government has started to provide weapons to Syrian civilians from minority groups that they trust to remain loyal, such as Christians and the Druze, in order for them to defend their local areas against possible opposition attacks. Such people, organized into what are referred to as "Peoples' Committees," maintain road checkpoints at the entrances to their quarters, and, in the old city, patrol the near-deserted ancient streets by foot throughout the night -- stopping any unfamiliar passers-by.

Government forces themselves also seek to prevent the movement of the opposition throughout the city by setting up temporary road checkpoints at various places at night. One location at which such a checkpoint is frequently found is at the north-eastern edge of the old city, just outside the famous Christian quarter Bab Touma. Here, on a busy road between the walls of the old city and the Sheikh Reslan mosque, regime security forces stop suspicious looking vehicles and apprehend suspected opposition fighters.

On this particular night, the authorities staged a raid on a house occupied by opposition supporters in an area close to the old city. Some of the people targeted in the raid attempted to escape and this led to a running gun fight through the city streets that came to an end in Bab Touma square -- one of the entrances to the old city and the one closest to the predominantly Christian quarter of the same name.

Some of the newly armed residents of the quarter became aroused by the sound of gunfire such a short distance away and climbed onto the rooves of their houses in order to gain an idea of what was going on. They saw a group of armed men milling around outside the old city in the other direction, near the Sheikh Reslan mosque.

The residents believed these men to be opposition fighters preparing to attack and therefore opened fire on them. Unbeknownst to them, however, these men were in fact Shabbiha, members of the pro-government militia, who were monitoring traffic on the road passing to the east of the old city. Upon finding themselves suddenly and unexpectedly assailed by unidentified and all-but invisible gunmen firing from the rooves of Bab Touma, the militia men came to believe that they were facing opposition fighters and so returned fire.

The battle between the two groups lasted around half an hour, and while it appears that no one was actually hurt, several of the houses at the edge of the old city suffered minor damage as a result of the wildly inaccurate automatic fire that characterised the gun fight. It was not until the next day that the true nature of the incident became clear and it was realised that the confrontation had been one between two groups on the same side of the conflict.

The officials responsible for the distribution of weapons and ammunition came to the area and spoke harshly to anyone found to possess less ammunition than they had been provided with, for having essentially launched an unprovoked attack on regime forces the previous night.

It seems likely, however, that, by giving arms and ammunition to people whose nerves have already been frayed by months of violence and real or imagined threats against their community, the regime is setting the scene for similar incidents in the future -- possibly with graver consequences.