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Syria’s war, once a rural revolt, now threatens urban elites

A fighter from the Free Syrian Army's Tahrir al Sham brigade uses a shotgun to fire an improvised grenade at Syrian Army soldiers in the Arabeen neighbourhood of Damascus in this Feb. 9, 2013 file photograph. Rebels have so far relied mainly on light weapons smuggled from neighbouring countries, many of them financed or sent from sympathisers in Gulf states, and from supplies seized from captured army bases inside Syria.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Last Thursday we spoke to a French expat living in the well-to-do Damascus neighbourhood of Malki as mortars fell around him. It was the first time residents of this plush district experienced firsthand the violence that has seen revolt turn to war over the past 23 months.

On Monday night, explosions were again heard around the same district as government security officers rushed to cut off access to much of western Damascus. Three presidential palaces are located in the area.

"This is something totally strange for people in this area to experience," said Jean-Pierre Duthion, who manages a lounge bar in the city's old quarter and lives in the area. "They are used to hearing and seeing the conflict in other parts of the city, but not from their homes."

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People in Malki and the nearby Abu Rommaneh district never had to fear war at their doorsteps; instead, they have listened from afar as fighting exploded in the city's southern suburbs. For the past two years they watched Deraa, Homs and Aleppo's eastern districts burn on their television sets. And stood by.

Many wealthy Syrian families, particularly leading merchants and businesspeople, dislike the Syrian regime for demanding influence and access to their cash and projects. For decades, individuals close to the regime approached business families looking to worm their way into investment opportunities. If the families agreed, government approval for projects happened overnight. If not, such clearance would never materialize.

But Syria's rich fear the revolutionaries more than they do Assad's cronies. For them, this is an uprising of the poor, a revolt of the countryside. The secular, French-speaking, espresso-drinking urbanites have not taken part and are increasingly being confronted with the real effects of revolution.

Why is this important? Not because the insurgents need money and logistical support from their wealthier countrymen to beat the Assad regime (though I'm sure they wouldn't turn it down), but because the divisions taking root between Syria's urban and rural populations will take far longer to reconcile.

The discord wrought on Syrian society by two years of conflict is not confined to the better-known religious disunions. The growing urban-rural divide is yet another serious impediment to societal reconciliation as the battle-hardened falaheen bring war closer to the doorsteps of Syria's rich.

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About the Author

Stephen Starr lived in Syria for five years until February 2012 and covered the revolt as a freelance journalist. He is the author of' Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising'. More

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