Middle East

Syria crisis: Free Army fighters claim control of Douma

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Media captionActivists helped the BBC's Jeremy Bowen access the town of Douma

Activists in Syria say security forces have launched an offensive against anti-regime fighters in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Hours beforehand, the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen assessed the situation in the area.

Getting into Douma took a nervous drive down a muddy lane on a dark and wet night.

Big farmhouses sat silent behind high walls and locked steel gates.

Then the car headlights picked out half a dozen men wearing masks and carrying weapons.

They said they were members of the Free Syrian Army, the loose alliance of fighters - mainly defectors from the regime's army - who have picked up guns to try to overturn more than 40 years of rule by the Assad family.

Their weapons were no match for the armoured military vehicles and heavy weapons that the regime can deploy. The Free Army fighters in Douma were armed with shotguns, pistols and an assortment of rifles.

Image caption Protests continue despite the killing of 12 activists last weekend

But the men were upbeat. Their commander, his beard poking out from under his mask, insisted they were winning.

"We're in control here. Douma is ours, Syria is ours and we'll win. The army and the security forces keep trying to get into here but we defeat them," he said

Another masked man joined in. "Pass this on to the world. Our revolution is peaceful. We don't attack the regime. They attack us," he said.

Douma was forbidding and dark, with power cuts and fuel shortages. Death notices for people killed in the uprising were pasted on top of each other next to the door of a mosque which is punctured by bullet holes.

Slowly, people were emerging from the evening prayer. Too often for them the nights have belonged to President Bashar al-Assad's arrest squads.

Strength in numbers

In the gloom, like nervous shadows, they headed to a square near the mosque where a mourning tent was set up to commemorate Douma's dead.

It was better lit, numbers make them feel stronger, and they chanted and clapped and some of them demanded the president's execution.

Activists in Douma said the Free Syrian Army had been strong enough to keep the regime's forces out of the centre of the suburb since just after the beginning of the year. Incursions still happen. Twelve protesters were killed last weekend.

Image caption Despite the opposition in Douma, the president still has a significant powerbase

Douma is about a 15-minute drive from the centre of Damascus. What has been happening there amounts to a blow for President Assad. Losing control of part of your capital city, for however short a time, is not a sign of strength.

But the president still has a powerful military.

Estimates of its strength vary. Some suggest that the security forces are overstretched. Others believe that elite units that could be committed to suppressing the uprising have been held back.

President Assad also has a core of supporters who agree with his view that he is fighting terrorists inspired by foreigners. His powerbase since the uprising started has been based on Syria's minorities - his own ruling Allawites, Christians, and parts of Syria's Druze and Kurd communities.

The way the country is splitting along sectarian lines - most of the protesters are Sunnis - reinforces fears of a sectarian civil war.

Around the middle of the evening, activists in Douma warned us that it was getting dangerous. They had heard the security forces were coming their way. They hustled the BBC team away and we were able to get back to the centre of Damascus.

Regime forces re-entered Douma a few hours after we left, according to sources there. The question is whether the Free Syrian Army can make it tough enough to force them out again.

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