Are We in the Final Battle for Damascus?

It has been in the making, as consistently predicted in this blog, and now it is finally happening. The Sunni uprising against the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Assad is fast approaching the point of decision. The battles are taking place in the capital Damascus, and the reports, while some may be somewhat exaggerated, are very clear: the rebels of the Free Syria Army are fighting in the very center of the city, are about to be, or already are in control of some of the headquarters of the once feared intelligence organizations, and it is all taking place minutes away from the presidential palace. By some accounts, the palace is without residents, as Bashar and his immediate family have already moved to the Alawite Mountains, something that was also predicted in this blog.

The fall of Damascus, once happening, will not be a nice event to watch on TV. Many nights of long knives will follow, and the violence will be of proportions unknown hitherto in the modern Middle East. Historians will compare the bloodbath to another watershed in the long history of the great city of Damascus, once one of the jewels of the great Islamic civilization. It was in the end of September 1918, and the Ottoman Empire was about to surrender to the Allies. The plan of the British officers who led the Arab Revolt was to make sure that the bedouins loyal to the Hashimite family entered Damascus first and accepted the surrender of the Ottoman governor; but things did not work out that way and a British unit led by a medium-level officer entered Damascus first, and the Ottoman governor surrendered to them. The transfer of power was described as "dignified," but nothing will be "dignified" in Damascus in the next days/weeks/months.

The revenge taken by the victorious rebels will be on a huge scale, so the main questions to be asked now are about the coming days, and what can be done to mitigate the inevitable mayhem. First, we need to mention the people that are likely to suffer most. That being those Alawites who somehow failed to flee back to the mountains; members of the Ba'th party, including Sunnis, who maintained their loyalty to the party on the expense of their communal solidarity; members of the business community, who were very slow to change sides; and members of the Christian community, particularly from Bab Touma, the famous Christian quarter, whose history goes back to the early days of Christianity.

The Christians, though not all of them, have refrained from joining the uprising, believing that the Alawite-dominated regime will be their wall of defense against Sunni domination. Christian rank and file may have joined the opposition, but the clergy, by and large, maintained its loyalty to the regime. The Christian press in Lebanon conducted a lively debate about the issue of Christian loyalty to Assad, and one of the dominant themes was the fear that many Syrian Christians are in danger of being subjected to a long spell of Sunni Winter.

In 1861, Bab Touma experienced a massacre of huge proportions, when thousands were slaughtered. Hopefully, this will not be the case this time. Shi'ite mosques and shrines in Damascus will also be in the line of fire, and altogether it will not be safe for Shi'ites, whether Iranian or Lebanese, to stay in Damascus when the chaos will reign supreme. Two other communities, the Kurds and the Druze, who inhabit large neighborhoods in Damascus, may be spared the wrath of the victorious rebels, and at any rate, unlike the Christians, these are communities which in the past knew how to defend themselves.

And chaos it will be, with the hope that it will not last for too long, and will be under control as soon as possible. The political leadership of the rebels, the Syrian National Council, lacks the power to dominate the situation in Damascus, and it seems more likely that the force more capable of exerting any sort of central authority will be the Free Syria Army, which is not a coherent body but rather a loose coalition of local militias. So, they too may not be able to do the job. The chaos in Damascus may not be that much different than that which prevailed in Beirut in 1975-6. The collapse of the regime will unleash a welter of old conflicts, hatreds and loyalties, which were all subjugated for decades under the yoke of the oppressive regime and will now come to the open.

All the above bodes ill, surely in the short term, and the challenge facing the Syrian opposition, and even more so, the external powers which support them, be it the U.S. or Saudi Arabia or Turkey, will be to use whatever leverage they have in order to prevent the worst possible scenario. Can they do it? They should try, and hopefully there are contingency plans on hand, but the chances of it happening quickly are not too high.

Under these circumstances, the innocent citizens of Damascus are going to suffer. They will rejoice with the final departure of the regime from the city, but they will be subjected to unpleasant situations which will tax to the limit their resilience and endurance.