The location of Assad’s speech on Sunday—the center of the city—was a message in its own right: a public sign that he felt confident the fight for Damascus is going his way, securing his presence in the heart of the capital. Analysts and activists say semicircle of terrain north and east of Damascus has fallen into rebel hands, threatening the government’s control over its own capital.
“The most important aspect is perhaps not the speech’s content, but rather the ability of Assad’s forces to secure the capital for such an event,” wrote Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, in a note released on Tuesday. He said that following successive rebel advances, particularly around the capital, there had been a perception that Assad’s military strength had been compromised.
“In delivering his speech from central Damascus, Assad was demonstrating that the strategy has been effective and that the military, the regime’s core pillar of support, remains intact.”
But still, the fight goes on. Even during the speech, there were reports of continued shelling in the city’s periphery. Over the weeks past, the regime has escalated intense shelling of the surrounding suburbs, flattening areas like Douma and Daraya. And for many months, Damascus has borne the marks of a security lockdown, with a heavy military presence across the city.
“The battle for Damascus is not unlike the battle for Aleppo,” said Joshua Landis, an analyst and author of the Syria Comment blog.
“The core neighborhoods outside of Damascus have a lot of refugees from Homs and other places, and they are boiling with opposition.”
Inside Damascus, Landis says, the regime has effectively barricaded itself into the city center. Residents tell Syria Deeply that checkpoints now pepper the city streets, holding up traffic and making it harder to get around. They also say few people go out late at night, as looting and robberies have spiked.
“The morale of people is gone in Damascus. Some people have no hope. And others have very little,” said one resident.
“Some people have shifted from one neighborhood to another neighborhood, looking for safety. It’s a survival issue.”
One barometer of the flight in Damascus is the city’s international airport. In November, flights were interrupted as battles intensified along the main airport road. If that happens again, it’s a sign the government is losing control in a war that has disrupted the most basic functions of the state.
According to Kamel’s note, Assad seems to have reasserted control over the capital. But insofar as this is battle of attrition, Landis argues that he is losing his grip as the battle goes on. Regime troops can’t easily be replaced, as compared to rebels, who are drawing on a larger pool of willing fighters, from Syria and abroad.
“It will be very difficult for the regime to hold on to Damascus,” said Landis.
“In the long run, this will be devastating to the regime.”