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Syria: Inside the battle for Damascus

Bashar al-Assad's order to turn the army's guns on Damascus has changed everything in the Syrian capital.

Syria soldiers damascus 21 07 2012Enlarge
Syrian soldiers take a break from battle in the al-Midan neighborhood of Damascus, July 20, 2012. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

DAMASCUS, Syria, and BEIRUT, Lebanon — From the Tomb of the Unknown soldier high on Qassioun Mountain, those burying the security chiefs who for decades had tortured and killed to maintain the Assad family's grip on power would have heard the explosions, seen and smelt the fires, as control turned to chaos in the capital below and guns sounded the potential death knell of the dictatorship.

Lorries, vans, taxies and cars were streaming out of Damascus yesterday as Syria's dictator did what no leader of one of the world's most ancient cities had ever done before: turn his own guns on the capital.

As artillery fired indiscriminately from the mountain down onto the rebellious neighborhoods that now ring the center of power, helicopter gunships thudded overhead, firing on crowds trying to bury their dead. Tanks trundled down highways, smashing into communities where rebel fighters find support and sanctuary.

Few images could be more fitting of the drastic situation now engulfing Syria than the coffin of the country’s once most feared military hardman, Assef Shakwat, being honored amid the sounds of a civil war he helped trigger and from which few believe the regime he served so loyally can ever recover.

More from GlobalPost: Syria: Is the regime crumbling?

The brother-in-law he fought and ultimately died for did not attend the funeral. President Bashar al-Assad, whose sister was married to Shawkat, did not emerge from his "People's Palace," just a few hundred meters from the military parade ground on Qassioun. Nor too did his younger brother Maher, who competed with Shawkat for title of regime’s most ruthless and once shot him in the gut over a family tiff.

"The army will finish those armed gangs in a few days and then everything will return back to how it was," said Haidar, a student and member of the same minority sect of Allawites to which the president and most ruling elites belong.

Events on the ground spoke to a very different reality. A GlobalPost reporter, a lifelong resident of Syria’s capital, summed it up in the opening sentence of his dispatch: "Damascus is different. Everything is changed."

Just a week earlier, the well-to-do had been lazing by the hotel pool, sipping cocktails and topping up their tans while a Russian dancer entertained. Suddenly the capital had been invaded by men whose tans came from working the farms and the factories, the fighters of the rural poor and the marginalized cities of the Sunnis, led by soldiers who had refused to continue firing on their countrymen.

More from GlobalPost: Syria’s thug-in-chief

The Free Syrian Army claimed to have dispatched more than 15,000 fighters to Damascus, joining up with existing rebel units in the capital. A senior Lebanese security source estimated the number between 7,000 and 10,000.

"Everyone knows that the battle of Damascus is the final one," said Abu Omar, clutching a black sniper rifle as he gathered his 15 fighters ready for another clash on the streets of Rukin Adeen, a run-down neighborhood in north-east Damascus, where rebels seized control for 48 hours before tanks and troops stormed in and took it back.

"We will regain this place. We are fighting urban warfare now, so it's not about holding one place. We want Bashar to live in terror that at any moment the Free Syrian Army can reach his palace," said Abu Omar.

More from GlobalPost: Meet the Free Syrian Army

Ominously for Assad, GlobalPost saw hundreds of fighters gathering in just one quarter of Rukin Adeen, preparing, they said, for an assault on the president’s office in the wealthy neighborhood of Muhajareen, just across Qassioun's flank.

It's not likely they'll find him working at his desk, said Ayman Abdel Nour, a former Assad advisor who left the regime in 2007 but maintains contacts with many in the upper echelons of power.

Assad is no longer living at home nor working in his office, said Abdel Nour, though diplomats said they did not believe the president had retreated to the Allawite stronghold of Lattakia port, as earlier reported.

"The presidential plane did indeed leave on the day of the blast but not with the president on it," said a Western diplomat still based in Damascus. Assad was seen on state TV