In recent days, fighting has erupted in and around the Syrian capital. The intensification of violence suggests that what many have dubbed "the grand battle for Damascus" is gathering force -- a major rebel offensive that has been in the works for several months may soon begin.
This isn't the first time the rebels have made a bid to capture the Syrian capital. In less coordinated efforts in July and December, rebel forces advanced in several neighborhoods and even took restive towns surrounding Damascus. However, lacking adequate supplies and overpowered by the regime's air force and artillery, their advances were repelled or contained. The battle for Damascus is likely to see more such fluctuations -- buildups of rebel forces followed by regime counterattacks, with civilians caught in the middle.
It's a common misconception that Damascus has been immune to the political upheaval that has swept the country since March 2011. True, President Bashar al-Assad can count on a large base of support: state bureaucrats, employees of state-owned and regime-favored companies, relatives of members of the security forces, members of the country's religious minorities, and middle- and upper-class Sunni urbanites. The regime has taken care to maintain the loyalty of Damascus: Its Sunni merchant class benefited under former President Hafez al-Assad's rule for remaining loyal during the Islamist insurrection of the 1970s and 1980s, and from Bashar's liberalization policies in the 2000s.
But many of the outlying towns that have been incorporated into the capital's urban fabric have wholeheartedly joined the revolution. For instance, Christian and Alawite dissidents -- arguably a minority within their communities -- drove to Daraya and Douma to join demonstrations (the slain activist and filmmaker Bassel Shehade was among them). Inside the city, the conservative, middle-class neighborhoods of Barzeh and Midan -- whose residents did not benefit from the regime's largesse and from the growth of the previous decade -- also joined the uprising. The same goes for the poor Sunni area of Qaaboun, where protesters have long been coming out en masse.
While much of the urban Sunni clergy has remained loyal (at least publicly) to Assad, others have joined the revolution and opened their mosques to protesters. This is true of Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam of Damascus's Umayyad Mosque and current head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
The stakes for the two warring sides couldn't be higher. For Assad, holding the capital at any cost is vital. Its loss would amount to an enormous symbolic, military, and political blow. His self-portrayal as the head of a still-functioning state would be decisively shattered. Regardless of urbanites' skepticism toward the rebels, the loss of Damascus would mean that they could no longer cling to the president as their defender. The same holds true for those who still support him out of hostility to the rebels' presumed ideological and political beliefs, but who lack an organic link to the regime. Without Damascus, which Assad would never be able to retake, he will probably lose command-and-control over loyal units across the country -- except in the northwest, where his most loyal supporters reside.