Hundreds of residents gathered at major squares in the Damascus and other cities Saturday, waving flags, honking car horns and dancing in public shows of defiance as the government and its allies brushed off a barrage of missile strikes intended to punish President Bashar Assad for an alleged poison gas attack against civilians.
Syria, Russia and Iran denounced the predawn attack against facilities linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program as an “act of aggression” and lambasted the United States, France and the United Kingdom for not waiting for international weapons inspectors to visit the site of last weekend’s suspected gas attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
But the airstrikes were not as extensive as many in Syria had feared and did not provoke an immediate military response from the government’s Russian and Iranian backers.
For one Damascus resident, the first indication of the tripartite airstrikes was the sound.
“These ones had a loud roar … louder than the ones we normally hear,” said Nicholas Zahr, a Damascus-based analyst contacted via Facebook early Saturday. “We’re not used to the sound of these missiles.”
Another resident, a Syrian government employee who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “We woke up from the sound …. We thought it was thunder. We didn’t get what was happening in the beginning.
“Then we saw lights of the air defenses in the sky.”
Those air defenses, Syrian state media claimed, intercepted at least two thirds of the guided missiles fired at three sites in Damascus and near the central city of Homs.
The Syrian army acknowledged, however, that “a few” missiles had hit what it described as a teaching and scientific research center in the Barzeh district of Damascus and said three civilians were wounded when a rocket targeting a military site near Homs “had been diverted.”
“Such aggressions will not stop our armed forces and their (allies) in continuing to crush what remains of the armed terrorist groupings across the expanse of Syrian territory,” the army command said in a statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at the United States and its allies for not waiting for a fact-finding team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog agency based in The Hague, to arrive in the city of Douma to collect evidence on the April 7 attack that killed at least 43 people dead and sickened hundreds of others The team had been expected to begin its work on Saturday.
The governments of Russia and Syria have dismissed the reports of a poison gas attack as a pretext to attack Assad’s forces.
“Russian military experts who visited the site of the alleged incident found no traces of the use of chlorine or other chemical agents,” Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin Saturday. “Not a single local resident confirmed that a chemical attack had taken place.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described the airstrikes against Syria as “murderous crimes,” according to a report by the semiofficial Fars news agency. In a phone call Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani assured Assad of the Islamic Republic’s continued support and expressed confidence that “this aggression would not weaken the determination of the Syrian people in its war against terrorism,” the Syrian presidency said.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant faction whose fighters have often served as the vanguard of Syrian government onslaughts, condemned the “treacherous” attack on “its sister Syria,” calling it a continuation of a strike by Israel on a Syrian air base this week that killed seven Iranian personnel. It dismissed the justifications given by the U.S., the U.K and France as “fake” and said they don’t stand up to “reason and logic.”
Explosions continued to reverberate across Damascus as the dawn call to prayer sounded Saturday. But the attack didn’t last long.
Within an hour, the air raid sirens had stopped, and “just like that, it’s quiet in Damascus now,” Leith Aboufadel, a Damascus-based journalist, said on Twitter.
Syrian state television showed one of its reporters, Kenan Ahmad, walking near the city’s Umayyad Square to interview some of those who had begun their morning commute.
“We’re going around in our car to prove to the whole world that Syria is fine and that everything is fine,” said one of those questioned, before driving off.
That projected image of nonchalance continued as the day wore on.
State and pro-government media uploaded pictures on social media depicting residents waving flags, flashing victory signs and breaking into an impromptu step dance near Umayyad Square. There were similar displays of support for the government in Hama and Aleppo.
Radio stations played nationalist songs on a loop, while pro-government TV channels featured a parade of analysts who delivered flowery speeches touting Damascus’ purported success against the U.S. and its allies.
A number of Damascus residents contacted by phone and social media Saturday morning said the city was already back to its usual routine, despite what one person said was “a small amount of fear” when the strike took place.
For many of those who have endured a years-long siege on the eastern Ghouta region, the former rebel bastion where Douma is located, the U.S.-led attacks appeared to be a case of too little, too late.
“These are just media strikes more than real strikes on the ground,” said Firas Abdullah, an opposition media activist who moved to the northern part of the country under a deal struck with the government to empty the region of rebels and their families.
“If they really want to finish Assad, or to stop him, they know exactly where he is,” he said.