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On A Razor's Edge In Damascus

Syrian military soldiers check identifications and search vehicles at a checkpoint on Baghdad Street in Damascus, Syria, on Aug. 21.
Hassan Ammar
Syrian military soldiers check identifications and search vehicles at a checkpoint on Baghdad Street in Damascus, Syria, on Aug. 21.

The author is a Syrian citizen in Damascus who is not being further identified for safety reasons.

Lately, Marwan feels like he is sneaking around Damascus doing "something bad."

Marwan is a personal trainer, and under normal circumstances he would have nothing to worry about.

But in the increasingly tense and fearful atmosphere that Damascenes find themselves, Marwan feels he has little choice but to look over his shoulder — especially because some of his few remaining clients are underground activists.

"I have to ask myself: What if the checkpoint up the road stopped me and demanded to know exactly where I'm going and why? And whether I know any activists or anyone in hiding from the government?" he asked one of his regular clients.

"Worst yet, what if they took me in for questioning and asked what my clients did for a living? What should I tell them?" he said.

Syrians walk at the al-Bzoureya market in Old Damascus on Thursday.
Youssef Badawi / EPA/Landov
Syrians walk at the al-Bzoureya market in Old Damascus on Thursday.

Marwan is right to worry.

A Roundup Of Workers

In recent days, the government security forces seem to have kicked into high gear and are carrying out continuous raids on civilians in the Syrian capital.

Earlier this week, state security descended upon the commercial district of Salhiyeh in central Damascus, where hundreds of retails shops flank a one-way avenue. The officers demanded the ID cards of retail employers at seemingly random shops.

Once they collected dozens of ID cards, placing them in a large plastic bag, they announced: "OK, everyone whose ID we have, follow us."

Then the security men walked toward two government buses waiting for them up the street. At least 300 young men followed, all of them civilians and most of them retail workers. They were loaded up into the buses and taken in for questioning at one of the intelligence branches in the city.

According to the few who were released, they were not beaten, "just humiliated the usual way." The released detainees were referring to the common detention procedure, which involves verbal insults and long waits in crowded rooms without access to water or to a bathroom, and without being told why one is being held or for how long.

As of this weekend, many of the detained had not yet been released, and no reason was given to their employees or families.

Like Being Under Foreign Occupation

These tactics, though not uncommon in the past, have become rampant in recent days as the government seems to be particularly on edge.

Many Damascus residents say that their city feels like it has come under foreign occupation since President Obama first indicated he might carry out a military strike against Syria.

Thousands of additional state security men have since descended upon Damascus, turning mosques and schools into barracks and apparently abandoning installations on the city outskirts for fear they will be targeted in the imminent strike.

But they do not seem to be getting a positive response from the civilian population — things like random salutes or a "God protect you" shout with a pat on the back. Instead, these armed men appear to encounter mainly tense faces and averted eyes from ordinary Damascenes.

One anti-government activist who is also an Alawite, the minority sect of President Bashar Assad and his regime, said this response from the local population isn't lost on the armed men.

"Some of them are my friends and relatives, and they tell me that they know if the regime fell, they don't know what fate they would face at the hands of locals," he said. "They know that without the armored vehicles and the military escorts and the government-secured roads, they would have no way to get home. They know that in the eyes of most Damascenes, they are just like a foreign occupier."

Marwan also seems to view them this way.

During his session at his client's home, the doorbell rang.

"They're here," said Marwan, then chuckled along with his client. It's an ongoing inside joke between the two, that state security is about to knock on the door any minute and take them away.

Asked what they thought would be the reason for such a thing?

"Oh, I don't know," said Marwan. "There doesn't have to be a reason these days. Maybe one of them decided I looked at him funny."

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