Two women walk past a huge billboard bearing a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the capital Damascus. Photo: AFP / Louai Beshara

Since recapturing the largely agricultural province surrounding Damascus in 2018, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has sought to portray the capital as a haven of calm in a country riven by conflict. In addition to the city’s symbolic importance, securing Damascus and the outlying region known as Rural Damascus is essential for the government’s political rehabilitation and economic recovery.

It did not take long for some governments to accept Assad’s narrative. Based on the relative absence of anti-Assad activities, Sweden and Denmark agreed that Damascus is safe enough for Syrian refugees to return home.

But this oversimplified risk assessment is now being tested. Sixteen attacks have been reported in and around Damascus since April, killing a total of 13 people affiliated with the government. While it is not clear who is behind the attacks, the high volume – more than one per week – raises questions about the stability of areas held by the government.

Local media recorded six assassination attempts in April. One attack was reported in the city of Damascus, while the rest took place in areas outside the capital, including Qatana, al-Kiswah, Beit Jinn and al-Worood district. Two casualties were reported. 

A similar number of attacks took place in May, with six confirmed dead. All of these attacks were again concentrated in towns outside Damascus (including Beit SahmHudjara and Kfer Yaboos). Then in June, four attacks occurred – in Hawsh Nasri, Beit Jinn, Qudssaya and Sbeneh – killing a total of five people, three of whom died while dismantling improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Notably, pro-government media did not report on every incident, choosing instead to play down the uptick in violence. Even when some of these attacks were publicized, government-supported news outlets generally portrayed the targets as civilians.

Independent news sources, on the other hand, reported that most of the casualties were government fighters or combatants, not civilians. A tally of these sources finds that 11 of the 13 killed since April were members of local security and armed forces, and two were Iranian-backed foreign militia members – one from Lebanese Hezbollah and the other from the Afghan Fatemiyoun.

Despite the significance of these attacks, the perpetrators have generally remained silent. So far, Islamic State (ISIS) is the only group that has claimed credit for any of the violence – the two attacks that occurred in Deir Khabiyeh, south of Damascus, in May. 

As for the others, the means by which they were carried out offers clues to the responsible parties.

For instance, multiple media organizations reported that four of the casualties were found days after they disappeared, suggesting they were kidnapped first. Abduction for ransom has become a widespread phenomenon in Syria, which means that criminal groups might be responsible for some incidents. If so, the killings could have happened either because the operations were not successful or because the attackers wanted to cover their tracks.

Six of the unclaimed attacks involved the use of IEDs, while the rest were carried out with firearms. Given that the targets were all members of or supported by the Assad regime, it is likely that former rebels – people who have the motives, skills and resources to carry out attacks – were responsible for some of these incidents.

In addition to failing to honor commitments pledged during surrender negotiations in 2018 – including the release of detainees – the government has increased its efforts to forcibly enlist into military service young men from the Damascus countryside. More important, deteriorating living conditions and rising rates of hunger may have motivated renewed resistance after nearly two years of relative calm.

To be sure, it is entirely possible that some of these attacks, especially the four that involved shooting, were “inside jobs.” The significant decrease in fighting in Syria has escalated competition between pro-government groups over influence and resources. While some of these incidents have been settled through direct confrontations between the parties involved, others might have decided to use more discreet means to settle scores.

The identity of the perpetrators, however, is not the most important element of these attacks. The biggest unknown is whether the government has the capacity to prevent them from striking again. While the answer remains unclear, the random pattern of these incidents, their spread across a relatively large area, and the diversity of potential suspects make such a task a formidable challenge.  

Even if the government can put an end to this wave of killing, recent developments have shown that the security of areas officially deemed safe is in fact precarious and fragile.

Western governments should not be fooled by Assad’s claim that the Syrian capital is safe for the country’s refugees, or anyone else. Syria remains in a state of war, and the only path to lasting peace is a comprehensive and fair political solution.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.