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December 6, 2012

Syrian capital a maze of checkpoints, blast walls

— Instead of a quick half-hour trip home from her class at Damascus University, Lama Issa says she now must maneuver through security checkpoints, army tanks and blast walls — a two-hour journey that is often terrifying.

That’s the new price of an uneasy security these days in the Syrian capital, the seat of power for President Bashar Assad.

Rebels have set their sights on the city of 1.7 million, and fighting on the outskirts is raising fears that Damascus soon could be facing the most brutal battle of the Syrian civil war.

“All these checkpoints make me feel like we’re under occupation. Yet I have to remind myself that these are Syrian soldiers,” Issa, a 22-year-old architecture student, told The Associated Press in the capital.

It is largely through a massive security clampdown that Assad maintains his grip over much of the capital. But the checkpoints and clogged traffic are adding to Syrians’ woes, including power cuts lasting several hours a day, shortages of heating fuel and diesel, and long lines for bread. Many city streets and squares are teeming with soldiers.

Residents say the disruption is hurting an already-struggling economy and turning daily life into an agonizing and frightening ordeal.

The Syrian military began setting up checkpoints separating Damascus and its mostly poor, Sunni Muslim suburbs early on in the uprising against Assad. Although the revolt began with largely peaceful protests in the country’s south in March 2011, the battle soon was transformed into a ferocious civil war that the opposition says has killed more than 40,000 people.

The Damascus suburbs, such as the sprawling town of Douma, became opposition hotbeds, and the government tried to isolate them from the capital.  

Activists and residents say the checkpoints and other security measures increased markedly in the summer after a bomb ripped through a meeting of top security chiefs. Several were killed, including Assad’s brother-in-law and the defense minister. Rebels then made an unsuccessful run on the capital and have been trying to push back in ever since.

Fighting around Damascus and the international airport a few miles south of the city has intensified in recent days as rebels press a battle they hope will finish Assad’s regime. The government responded with an unprecedented tightening of security, and some of the measures — like endless checkpoints and blast walls — seem more like Baghdad in the worst days of the Iraq war.

Activists estimate there are now about 250 fixed checkpoints in Damascus, in addition to those set up by pro-regime vigilantes known as the Popular Committees and the “flying checkpoints” that are set up briefly and then dismantled.

They say the checkpoints and the young soldiers manning them are often there to taunt, provoke or intimidate people just as much as they are there to guard against rebel attacks.

At a checkpoint near the town of Kisweh just south of Damascus, troops stand around a large picture of Assad placed on a wooden placard amid sandbags, adorned with pro-regime slogans. “We are the soldiers of Assad,” the poster says.  

A group of uniformed soldiers search approaching cars at a snail’s pace, first asking for identification, then asking random questions about what’s on the ID papers, where the auto’s occupants are from and where they are going. Motorists also are asked to open the trunk for a thorough search as lines of cars stretch up to a mile (a half-kilometer) or more.

Issa, who lives in the town of Sahnaya southwest of Damascus, says her younger brother was seized at one of the checkpoints two months ago and has not been heard from since.

“I detest these checkpoints, even though I know that many of the soldiers standing at them are hapless. But it frustrates me deeply to see their pictures, their flags, their uniforms,” she said.

The checkpoints are particularly cumbersome for some students and employees, cutting off neighborhoods from each other and isolating the city from its suburbs. Many residents have been forced to quit their jobs or relocate rather than spend hours in what some refer to as the “death traps.” Others finish work or homework in their cars, or sleep at friends’ houses.

In addition to the checkpoints, a maze of concrete blast walls and barriers protect the entrances to government ministries, security buildings and other institutions.

The capital has seen a series of suicide bombings, many of them against security targets, as well as car bombings in pro-regime neighborhoods.

Omayyad Square, one of the city’s two huge landmark plazas, often has two checkpoints. Sabaa Bahrat Square, which in the beginning of the uprising was home of huge pro-Assad demonstrations, has several roadblocks and often has trucks parked to block roads.

A 28-year-old salesman who lives in the Damascus suburb of Daraya recently quit his job because he fears arrest at a checkpoint after one of the soldiers there threatened to throw him in jail for six months if he didn’t replace his damaged ID card.

A 55-year-old minibus driver says his work hours have been cut in half because of clogged traffic and the fear of kidnappings after dark. A few days ago, two drivers were kidnapped by gunmen who asked for $13,000 in ransom for each, while a third was killed when he refused to take a passenger to a troubled area, he said.

The salesman and the minibus driver spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from the government.

Activists have taken to social networking sites to inform each other and post updates on checkpoints.

A newspaper called Local Grapes, started recently by the Daraya coordinating committees, published tips for activists in case they absolutely must cross a checkpoint. It suggested that they not carry anything identifying them, but rather use the ID of a deceased friend or someone abroad.  

“Don’t show distress,” goes the tip. “Take a deep breath, answer questions in a calm way, and act like they don’t know anything about you.”

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