DAMASCUS: A heavy sense of dread pervades Damascus, as Washington and its allies mull military action after alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime outside the capital last week reportedly killed hundreds of people.
Jihan is convinced the first U.S. strike on Syria would hit Mezzeh military airport near her Damascus home, and has already packed her family’s bags, ready to flee the capital.
“They’ll hit Mezzeh, I’m sure; the target makes sense,” the young mother said of the facility, which President Bashar Assad himself uses to travel within Syria.
Mezzeh is guarded by the army’s fearsome Fourth Division, which Assad’s brother Maher Assad commands, and is responsible for protecting Damascus and its outskirts against any rebel advances.
Jihan, her husband and their two daughters already moved in Monday with relatives living closer to the center of town and away from the airport.
Traffic in downtown Damascus, already diminished since the outbreak of the 29-month civil war, has thinned conspicuously as the West ramps up talk of military intervention.
People only venture out for urgent business or to gather supplies.
“There are fewer people around,” said Adel, a bank worker. “My wife doesn’t go to see her mum everyday anymore. She just goes straight home from work.”
Mohammad, 35, speaking in the upmarket Abu Rummaneh neighborhood in the center of Damascus, said that “for three days rumors have been flying around.
“My mother is terrified because we live near all the central government buildings, and they’re a real target.”
Futun, a mother living in the same area, said she was “suffering from hypertension because I’m so scared by talk of a strike.”
Malek, an electrical goods salesman, appeared tense.
“Everyone is nervous after listening to [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry,” he said, in reference to comments by the top U.S. diplomat that suggested a strike would go ahead should it be discovered Assad did indeed use chemical weapons.
“On [Saudi-based] Al-Arabiya TV, they’re talking about striking Mezzeh and Damascus international airport,” Malek said, sitting in his shop now deserted by customers.
Malek’s sister Mayada has already withdrawn all her money from the bank.
“I sent my wife to the market and she bought large amounts of meat, tomatoes, bread and pasta,” Malek said. “She thinks we might have to stay barricaded in for a long while.”
Food sellers in the market have witnessed the same sense of panic.“Lots of people come to stock up in the morning and after work,” said Mohammad, whose stall sells rice, olive oil and pasta.
But for Michel, a cosmetics shop-owner who lives in the mostly Christian quarter of Tijara, rebel mortar fire on the center of the capital is far worse than any airstrike by the West could be.
“These mortar rounds are far scarier because they practically land on our heads,” he said.
Others profess their sometimes apocalyptic views on the fallout from a U.S. strike.
“If they strike, Russia and Iran will help us,” said Abu Ahmad, a baker. “It’ll be the Third World War and the fire won’t go out.”
But architect Maysa was more philosophical. “The strike is inevitable – Obama’s been under a lot of international pressure to react.
“In any case, our country is already at war,” she said of Syria’s conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people.