Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

The 19-month-long conflict in Syria between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces seeking to topple his government continued to deepen this past week, with violence seeping into Damascus and tensions spilling into neighboring Lebanon as a high-level Sunni official was killed in a Beirut bombing on Friday.

Many blamed the Beirut explosion, which caused at least eight other deaths and dozens of injuries, on the Assad government taking revenge for the recent arrest of a Lebanese ally who helped Syria plot terrorist bombings. Assad’s Shiite regime is closely allied with Hezbollah, the extremist Shiite group that dominates the Lebanese government.

The attack on Friday immediately triggered protests by the Sunni opposition in Lebanon. Opposition forces took to the streets to burn tires and blockade roads. On Sunday, a memorial service was held for those killed in the attack. Protestors used this opportunity to publicly voice their anger and frustration against the Lebanese regime as well as the Assad regime.

Minor scuffles occurred between protestors and soldiers after the memorial service as the crowd tried to climb a fence surrounding a government compound. Fortunately, no casualties occurred. Nonetheless, ethnic tensions have heightened between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon, a country with a history of bloody civil war.

Prime Minister Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, offered his resignation after the attack, although President Michel Suleiman rejected it. Sunnis have fiercely criticized Mikati for failing to oppose the Hezbollah government for its support of the Assad regime. In the aftermath of this bombing, many fear the outbreak of sectarian violence and a Syria-type conflict in the country. Opposition groups, such as the March 14 bloc, have already called for the government’s resignation.

Within Syria’s borders, signs of the brutal conflict are becoming more obvious daily in the capital city of Damascus. The city has been, to a large extent, spared from the heaviest of the fighting in the last few months. However, an increase in the number of soldiers and checkpoints have made life in the city much more difficult. Furthermore, many gas stations have run empty and prices of everyday items have skyrocketed.

Gunfire and bombings are also increasing in frequency and intensity. The sense of danger has made many residents of the city wary of what may unfold in the coming weeks. “Soon we will be in the middle of Damascus,” read one wall of graffiti in a neighborhood controlled by rebels.

Less than a month ago, the daughter of a wealthy businessman in Damascus was kidnapped. She was eventually returned home, but only after a $395,000 ransom was paid and the girl was abused and tortured.

Assad has attempted to shield the city from the chaotic fighting as best as he can. The image of a stable, normal capital city was supposed to aid his cling to legitimacy. However, with all signs pointing to an approaching showdown between government and rebel forces in Damascus, Assad’s façade of calm is quickly falling apart.

Nightclubs no longer thump until dawn hours. Few Western diplomats and reporters remain. The vibe of the whole town has become much more tense and filled with fear — fear for an impending battle that promises little certainty for the future.