“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, 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 dozens of missiles, including 13 targeting the town of Kisweh, 10 miles south of Damascus, and another barrage near the central city of Homs. Yet many made it to their target.
The Pentagon said U.S., French and British forces unleashed about 120 missiles against a scientific center near Damascus that was used for research, development and production of chemical and biological agents; a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs; and a separate chemical agent storage site and command post near Homs. Officials would not say whether any of the missiles were intercepted.
It was soon over, Leith Aboufadel, a Damascus-based journalist, tweeted. Within an hour, the wails of air raid sirens had stopped, and “just like that, it’s quiet in Damascus now.”
Meanwhile, Syrian state television showed one of its reporters, Kenan Ahmad, walking near Umayyad Square, a major stop for drivers in the city. He interviewed some of those who had begun their morning commute as dawn came to the city.
“We’re going around in our car to prove to the whole world that Syria is fine and that everything is fine,” said one driver, before driving off.
That projected image of nonchalance continued as the day wore on.
The Syrian presidency released a video of President Bashar Assad arriving for work hours after the attack. Titled “the Morning of Steadfastness,” it shows Assad calmly walking through a large marbled hall, briefcase in hand, with the whisper of a water fountain in the background.
State and pro-government media uploaded pictures on social media depicting residents breaking out into an impromptu step dance near the Umayyad square, among other demonstrations of popular support for the government in Hama and Aleppo. Radio stations played nationalist songs on a loop, while pro-government TV channels invited a parade of analysts who delivered flowery speeches touting Damascus’ success.
“On this occasion, let me direct a salute of love and glorification and congratulations to our people first, to our army second, and to our wise leadership and the allies who stood with us,” said Samir Abu Saleh, a Damascus-based professor of political studies interviewed by the pro-government Ikhbariyah channel. “The Syrian army was able to sign the tome of victory … [and] confirmed once more that this people will not be humiliated.”
A number of residents contacted by phone and social media on Saturday morning said Damascus was already back to its usual routine, despite what one person said was “a small amount of fear” when the strike took place.
The Syrian army, meanwhile, released a statement saying its air defenses had been “highly effective” in stopping the missile barrage and had intercepted “most of them.”
It acknowledged, however, that “a few” missiles had hit what the army described as a teaching and scientific research center in the Barzeh district of Damascus. Three civilians were wounded when a rocket targeting a military site near Homs “had been diverted,” the statement said.
“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 asserted.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant faction whose fighters have often served as the vanguard of 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., Britain and France as “fake” and said they don’t stand up to “reason and logic.”
For many of those who had endured the years-long siege of the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus, where dozens of people were reported killed in the alleged chemical weapons attack Saturday, 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 had documented the government’s assault on eastern Ghouta before relocating to the north of the country this month under a deal 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.”
After losing friends and relatives in weeks of punishing airstrikes that activists say killed at least 1,600 civilians in eastern Ghouta, many find the red line drawn by Western governments over a single chemical weapons attack incomprehensible.
“So it’s OK that I die from barrel bombs, bullets, rocket launchers, hunger, lack of medicine, but it’s not OK if I die from chemical weapons?” said Bayan Rehan, another activist who was recently displaced from eastern Ghouta. “What is this idiocy they are offering the Syrian people?”
An hour later, traffic was already piling up in Damascus.
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.
5:30 a.m., April 14: This article was updated with reaction from the Syrian government, the army and residents.