DAMASCUS (Reuters) - When armed men appeared at a home in the northern Damascus district of Rukn al-Din, they told the elderly woman who answered the door they were state security forces carrying out a routine inspection.
Then they made off with her valuables.
When the crime was reported, police refused to investigate - a sign, say residents, of the impunity of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces and allied militias blamed for a wave of abductions, theft and property seizures.
Echoing complaints from rebel-held territory, where shadowy armed groups abuse and exploit civilians on the other side of the frontline, Syrians in the capital say the problem there has been exacerbated by the expansion of militias known as Popular Committees, which form part of Assad’s response to the uprising now in its third year.
On joining a local committee, the new member gets a monthly stipend, a Kalashnikov rifle and a mandate to join vigilante operations throughout the neighborhood.
However, with so many armed men now patrolling turf and with little oversight, many in Damascus say the government is sanctioning little more than a network of robbers.
The thieves in Rukn al-Din, a middle class area nestled under the army-controlled hills that hem the north of the city, struck at prayer time - a moment in the day when they knew many residents would be at the local mosque. They said they were from State Security - not an organization Syrians say no to - and said they were doing a routine neighborhood check.
“They clearly knew there would be only an elderly woman at home at that hour,” said a man who is close to the family and was present at the home after the robbery.
“They told her to bring all the home’s valuables and place them on the kitchen table - so as to ensure her belongings were safe while the men freely inspected her home”.
She did as they asked, bringing out jewellery belonging to herself and her daughters, and all the family cash - a sizeable sum in times when civil war has left people wary of banks.
“She was still making them tea when they made off with everything. By the time we got back, they had completely disappeared,” said the family friend.
The family tried to file a police report, but the precinct chief refused to follow it up.
“When we told him the perpetrators identified themselves as State Security, he went pale in the face and threw his arms in the air. He said he could not get involved, that he was not going to mess with state security,” the man said.
“Basically, we’re all fair game. No one looks out for us.”
The identities of those involved are withheld for their safety. Restrictions on media reporting in Syria prevent journalists from approaching officials for comment on cases.
One Damascus lawyer, who routinely deals with missing persons and accusations against state employees, described life in many government-controlled areas as the “Wild, Wild West”.
“In my district, Popular Committee guys receive a 15,000 pound ($90) monthly stipend from the government,” she said, referring to an area in the south of the city. “But they get a gun and a carte blanche to bully and rob the rest of us.”
She echoes a common resentment toward the Popular Committees, even among supporters of the Syrian government who feel they are a necessary evil and protect them from rebels camped in the suburbs, some of them with a taste for vengeance against religious minorities they see as Assad loyalists.
Even though Committees do not have great official authority - they report to neighborhood State Security chiefs - their word carries weight because they are trusted by the higher authorities to know who among the locals might be a “trouble-maker” - a sympathizer with the rebels.
This power, locals say, has led to wanton acts and personal vendettas that leave others in the district feeling vulnerable.
One woman from an area close to the frontline east of the centre recounted how, a few months ago, her 20-year-old son was snatched at a checkpoint near his home that was manned by a Popular Committee, among them young men who knew him.
“To this day, we don’t know why they did that. Maybe my son upset someone in the committee. Maybe they were in a bad mood. We don’t know,” said the woman, who used the name Um Hassan.
The young man was released after nearly eight months detained without trial or due process. His feet looked “like bear claws, swollen and cracked from all the beatings”, his mother said. No reason was ever given for his detention, and Um Hassan fears retribution from the committee if she complains.
“Let’s just count our blessings and stay out of trouble,” she said, reflecting a general mood among Damascus civilians.
The tribulations of residents in government-controlled areas are matched by those in rebel regions, covering much of the country, where many fighters have resorted to looting.
But alarmingly for many in the capital, who for decades enjoyed the day-to-day security that came with the ubiquitous police presence which kept Assad in power, that state apparatus now seems to be turning a blind eye - at the very least - to what seems like random violence and property crime.
In central Damascus, several high profile cases of robbery have hit neighborhoods close to imposing buildings housing branches of the State Security service - areas where no stranger stays unnoticed for long, and where Syrians would, in the past, never dare to defy the law.
“Not a single ant moves around here without State Security knowing,” said one person living near such an establishment. Yet robberies have occurred and law enforcement officials have often refused to intervene, several residents have said..
Some in the city have lost out in other ways.
In the prosperous southwestern district of Kafar Souseh, many luxurious and fully furnished homes with absentee owners are now squatted by army officers or state security officials.
They moved in weeks ago when they believed a U.S. military strike on Syria was imminent, feeling safer inside the city than in their garrison towns in the suburbs.
Travelers have also been victims. One man, whose first name is Issam, recalled an inter-city coach trip to Damascus after which passengers found their luggage had been systematically ransacked and stolen by soldiers and militiamen at checkpoints - apparently in collusion with the bus driver.
Several other people in the capital told similar stories.
Even in the heart of the capital, considered the most secure part of Syria and firmly in government hands, checkpoints have turned into places of petty theft.
Throughout the city, grocers located near checkpoints have cut back stocks of ready-to-eat food because soldiers and state security men routinely help themselves to anything from chocolate to bread and cheese without paying.
“Or they give me 5 pounds for something that cost me 50 pounds wholesale, and they know I can’t argue with them,” said Abu Abdo. “So now I only stock cleaning products and fresh vegetables that they can’t eat right away. And no more candy!”
Editing by Dominic Evans and Alastair Macdonald