01:45 - Source: CNN
CNN goes inside formerly besieged Eastern Ghouta
Damascus, Syria CNN —  

On one of the Syrian capital’s main highways, a plume of smoke is visible in the distance. A taxi driver leans out his car window and calls out to a cabbie next to him: “The fighting’s started in Douma again today?”

Eastern Ghouta’s largest city, and last rebel holdout, is less than 10 miles from the center of Damascus.

But when reports surfaced about a suspected chemical attack claiming scores of lives in the enclave on Saturday, it felt like a world away.

As US President Donald Trump promised to respond “forcefully” within “24 or 48 hours,” people on the streets of Damascus went about daily life. And Syrian state TV, which normally broadcasts round-the-clock news, aired a program about mouth cancer.

A traffic jam on Shukri al Qualti street in central Damascus.
Claudia Otto/CNN
A traffic jam on Shukri al Qualti street in central Damascus.

With the specter of an imminent US strike looming, Damascenes CNN spoke with said an attack couldn’t be worse than the last seven years of war. CNN is in the country with the permission of the Syrian government.

After a two-month government assault earlier this year left more than 1,000 people dead in Eastern Ghouta, most of the suburb’s rebels were expelled, thousands of civilians fled and the area was left in tatters.

And on Saturday, an alleged chemical attack targeted those still remaining in Douma, killing at least 48, many of them sheltering in basements, the White Helmets rescue group and the Syrian American Medical Society charity group said.

Videos circulating on social media showed dead children, pale and frothing at the mouth, sending shock waves around the world, and leading the UN Security Council to conduct a tense meeting over the attacks.

Syrian state TV dismissed the reports as “theater,” and Damascus locals that spoke to CNN said the reports “made no sense.”

“There definitely wasn’t a chemical attack in Ghouta, for the simple reason that the regime doesn’t need to chemically attack Ghouta in order to recapture it,” said one man in his mid-20s who didn’t give his name for security reasons.

A boy on the side of a road in battered Eastern Ghouta.
Tamara Qiblawi/CNN
A boy on the side of a road in battered Eastern Ghouta.

The alleged attack took place just hours before a deal ending the standoff in Douma was set to take effect – the remaining rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, began evacuations to opposition-held Jarablus in Syria’s north. The rebels’ pro-government captives, many women and children held in Douma for as long as three years, were also released as part of the deal.

Some locals say the timing was suspect. Government forces, they say, were on the brink of victory against the rebels and a chemical attack would not have helped them achieve their aims.

“Misinformation campaigns always happen when the Syrian army is on the verge of victory,” Syrian Minister for Public Administration Hussein Makhlouf told CNN.

Asked whether the Syrian government feared the US strikes, Makhlouf said: “Of course not. Ask any child in Syria, any young man, any woman, they won’t be afraid.”

Over the course of the Syrian war, which entered its eighth year this March, the capital was nearly surrounded by rebel holdouts.

Government forces laid waste to the areas in their attempts to recapture the territory. A drive through the suburbs is testimony to the army’s use of force.

Damascenes say the rebels placed daily life in a chokehold. According to Syria’s health ministry, at least 8,000 people in Damascus were killed in rebel mortar fire from the suburbs since 2012.

A boy wounded in Damascus after rebel mortar fire on Friday.
Tamara Qiblawi/CNN
A boy wounded in Damascus after rebel mortar fire on Friday.

The government’s recapture of rebel-held areas heralds the resumption of normal life. People in the capital say this is more important than Trump’s threats.

Asked how people feel about the fate of those in Eastern Ghouta, tens of thousands of whom have been displaced, the same man in his mid-20s appeared defensive.

“I wish the media would stop making it seem like we don’t care about the people of Ghouta. It’s not us vs them. They are part of us,” he said.

“We’re all Syria. When I read ‘Bashar al Assad’s Syria’ in the media, I consider this the biggest insult.”