By Samia Nakhoul
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - MiG warplanes roar low overhead to strike rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad on the fringes of Damascus, while artillery batteries pound the insurgents from hills overlooking a city divided between all-out war and a deceptive calm.
Whole families can be obliterated by air raids that miss their targets. Wealthy Syrians or their children are kidnapped. Some are returned but people tell grim tales of how others are tortured and dumped even when the ransom is paid.
People also tell of prisoners dying under torture or from infected wounds; of looting by the government's feared shabbiha militias or by rebels fighting to throw out the Assad family.
That is one Damascus. In the other, comprising the central districts of a capital said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, the restaurant menus are full, the wine is cheap and the souks are packed with shoppers.
Employees report for work, children go to school and shops are open, seemingly undeterred by the din and thud of war.
The two cities exist a few miles apart - for now.
For Damascus and its outskirts are rapidly descending into civil war and everything that comes with it - lawlessness, looting, kidnapping and revenge killings. Like the rest of the country, the capital and its suburbs are crawling with armed gangs.
"Anybody can come to you pretending he is security and grab you in broad daylight, put you in a car and speed off and nobody dares interfere or rescue you," says Lama Zayyat, 42. "A girl in the 7th grade was kidnapped and her father was asked to pay a big ransom. The same happened to other children," she said.
Nobody really knows who is behind the kidnappings. In one gang, one brother is in charge of abductions while another brother negotiates with the victims. The fear is palpable.
NO SECT HAS BEEN SPARED
The war has not yet reached the heart of the capital, but it is shredding the suburbs. In the past week, government troops backed by air power unleashed fierce barrages on the east of the city in an attempt to flush out rebel groups.
Most of central Damascus is controlled by Assad's forces, who have erected checkpoints to stop bomb attacks. The insurgents have so far failed to take territory in the center.
Just as loyalist forces seem unable to regain control of the country, there looks to be little chance the rebels can storm the center of Damascus and attack the seat of Assad's power.
For most of last week the army rained shells on the eastern and southern neighborhoods of Douma, Jobar, Zamalka and Hajar al-Aswad, using units of the elite Republican Guard based on the imposing Qasioun mountain that looms over the city.
The rebels, trying to break through the government's defense perimeter, were periodically able to overrun roadblocks and some army positions, but at heavy cost.
Jobar and Zamalka are situated near military compounds housing Assad's forces, while Hajar al-Aswad in the south is one of the gateways into the city, close to Assad's home and the headquarters of his republican guard and army.
Since the uprising began two years ago, 70,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from Syria and millions more are displaced, homeless and hungry. No section of society has been spared, whether Christians, Alawites or Sunnis, but in every community it is the poor who are suffering most.
Electricity is sporadic. Hospitals are understaffed as so many doctors - often targeted on suspicion of treating rebel wounded - have fled. Hotels and businesses barely function.
Outside petrol stations and bakeries, queues are long and supplies often run out, meaning people have to come back the next day. Those who can afford it pay double on a thriving black market.
The scale of the suffering can be seen in the ubiquitous obituary notices on the walls of Damascus streets - some announcing the deaths of whole families killed by shelling.
As if oblivious of these private daily tragedies, the government insists the situation is under control, while the rebels say the Assads' days are numbered.
NOWHERE NEAR OVER
Ordinary Syrians are convinced their ordeal is nowhere near over. While they believe Assad will not be able to reverse the gains of the rebels, they cannot see his enemies prevailing over his superior firepower, and Russian and Iranian support.
"The regime won't be able to crush the revolution and the rebels won't be able to bring down the regime," said leading opposition figure Hassan Abdel-Azim. "The continuation of violence won't lead to the downfall of the regime, it will lead to the seizure of the country by armed gangs, which will pose a grave danger not only to Syria but to our neighbors".
"Right now no one is capable of winning," said a Damascus-based senior Arab envoy. "The crisis will continue if there is no political process. It is deadlock."
Other diplomats in Damascus say the United States and its allies are getting cold feet about arming the rebels, fearing the growing influence of Islamist radicals such the al-Nusra Front linked to al-Qaeda, banned last year by Washington.
Some remarks recur again and again in Damascus conversations: "Maybe he will stay in power, after all", and, above all, "Who is the alternative to Assad?"
"At first I thought it was a matter of months. That's why I came here and stayed to bear witness to the final moments," said Rana Mardam Beik, a Syrian-American writer. "But it looks like it will be a while so I am thinking of going back to the U.S."
Loyalty to Assad is partly fed by fear of the alternative. Facing a Sunni-dominated revolt, Syria's minorities, including Christians and Assad's own Alawites - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam - fear they will slaughtered or sidelined if the revolution succeeds and Sunni fundamentalists come to power.
Many Christians are already trying to emigrate to countries such as Sweden, diplomats say.
"The minorities have every right to be frightened because no one knows what is the alternative. Is it a liberal, civic, pluralistic and democratic state, or is the alternative an Islamist extremist rule that considers the minorities infidels and heretics?" said Abdel Azim. Continued...