Defiant Syrians leave it to fate as strikes loom

Syrians walk in a park in the capital, Damascus on Sept 5, 2013. As the prospect of US-led strikes looms high over Syria, many residents of Damascus have packed up and fled, some leave it to fate and others defiantly insist their city will not fall.
Syrians walk in a park in the capital, Damascus on Sept 5, 2013. As the prospect of US-led strikes looms high over Syria, many residents of Damascus have packed up and fled, some leave it to fate and others defiantly insist their city will not fall. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

DAMASCUS (AFP) - As the prospect of US-led strikes looms high over Syria, many residents of Damascus have packed up and fled, some leave it to fate and others defiantly insist their city will not fall.

Dima, a painter, says she is sure that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "will defend us". Sitting in a restaurant in the popular central souk of Salhiyeh with a plate of chicken kebab, Dima says she is wholly on Mr Assad's side, despite Western accusations he is behind a suspected chemical attack on August 21.

Like many other Syrians who spoke to AFP, Dima is convinced that the aim of a possible strike is to crush "the axis of resistance" (against Israel) formed by Damascus and its allies Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

"Damascus is a fortress, a thorn in the foot of the Americans," says Dima.

"Damascus will not fall."

Mr Assad's regime, playing up the nationalistic sentiments of the people, has said it is ready to confront a Western military attack - a strike that would be the first to target the country since World War II, with the exception of action seen during the various Arab-Israeli wars.

State television channels frequently glorify the regime's "resistance" in the face of the "aggressor," against a background of footage showing the army in combat.

"If there is a strike, I will volunteer to fight alongside the army, to help, whatever," says Dima.

"Had I been afraid I would have left a long time ago," she adds.

Aid groups in Lebanon say that between 80 and 120 Syrian families have been scrambling across the border each day since August 21- twice as many as before the claimed chemical attack.

Those who stayed behind have decided to leave it all to fate.

"I profoundly believe that what is written will happen," says Hanan, a veiled woman choosing a new pair of shoes in one of the many shops around Salhiyeh.

"I have a wedding to go to, so I am not worried," she says.

Booms of shellfire can be heard intermittently in the distance, but in the souk, despite the military checkpoints here and there, it is business as usual.

Young girls are window shopping, a street peddler is hawking corn and a crowd is gathering around a fresh fruit vendor.

Near the historic Hijaz train station of central Damascus, stronghold of the regime, many Syrians questioned by AFP echo the combative mood of the government, despite a certain agitation.

"Of course we are afraid that there will be deaths, that the infrastructure will be destroyed," says Umm Hassan.

"But we will stay here and we will resist; that is how we will overcome," she says, her eyes shielded by dark sunglasses.

And many Syrians are determined to come out victorious, just like national hero, Yussef al-Azmeh, who fought against French colonial powers and whose statue stands erect a mile away.

"Yussef al-Azmeh had only a few rifles and he never ceded to the French. We will do the same," says Abu Firas.

France backs a strike on Syria and President Francois Hollande has said France is ready to "punish" Mr Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons, though Paris will not act alone.

"Shame on France for being dragged that way behind the United States," shouts a passerby.

For other Syrians the drums of war remind them of another conflict, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Mazen, an engineer, says he was only 14 then and would climb up on the roof of his family's home to watch Israeli war planes.

"Faith in our victory will be stronger than any military force," he says, his eyes scanning the headlines of local pro-regime dailies at a newspaper stand.

Fuad has no doubt about that.

"Even if there is a bloodbath, Damascus will resist. Even if they come in their tanks, they will have to pass over our dead bodies," he says.

US President Barack Obama is waiting for congressional approval to launch a punitive strike on Syrian regime targets, but has said military intervention will not involve any forces on the ground.