Syria’s Assad Regime Prepares for an American Assault

The regime is responding with defensive measures that could change the face of the war, according to rebel commanders and witnesses inside the country

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Syrian Presidency / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad answers questions by French journalist Georges Malbrunot, Aug. 2, 2013.

In Syria, anti-aircraft missiles are at the ready. Army battalions have been broken up and relocated from barracks to university dorms and sensitive materiel has been moved to the basements of private residences. As U.S. President Barack Obama courts Congressional approval for a proposed attack on Syrian security installations in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons, the regime is responding with defensive measures that could change the face of the war, according to rebel commanders and witnesses inside the country.

As the UN refugee agency announces its two millionth refugee to flee across Syria’s border to the relative safety of exile Tuesday morning, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the estimated seven million Syrians, or one third of the population, that have been forced from their homes by more than two years of war will return anytime soon. Syrian President Bashar Assad has turned the delay in American action to his advantage, trumpeting what he calls a victory in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper and warning darkly of “chaos,” “extremism” and “regional war” should the U.S. press ahead with attacks.

But even though congressional approval for an American strike is not certain, Assad is not taking any chances. The past few days have seen an exodus of Syrian soldiers from established military bases to scattered outposts not easily breached by the anticipated missile strikes, according to rebel commanders who have seen convoys of tanks and truckloads of soldiers heading for the countryside. The soldiers have fortified mountain redoubts around the capital with anti-aircraft missiles, says Major Mohammad Wared, a defected government soldier who is now part of the rebel-led Ahrar al Sham Islamic brigade. The presidential guards, he says, via Skype, “are making a belt of anti-aircraft rockets to surround Damascus in case the strikes start.” Many more soldiers are heading for the coastal province of Latakia, where Assad’s minority Alawite sect has an historic enclave, he says, estimating that some 3500 infantry of the regime’s seasoned 5th brigade are now guarding the highway connecting Damascus to the coast.

Residents in Damascus reached by Skype report seeing tanks armed with anti-aircraft guns stationed prominently on major intersections. Others complain about the sudden appearance of heavily armed soldiers walking though quiet alleyways. Amal Umm Ahmed, a mother of two children who fled the capital for Lebanon as the tension mounted, complained that many soldiers had removed their uniforms to blend in with the population and escape detection. “We cannot differentiate between the military and the civilians,” she said by telephone from the border with Lebanon. Soldiers have driven the residents of her north Damascus neighborhood away, she says. “The army is using our houses to sleep and eat. When I decided to leave the army asked me to leave the door unlocked. I could not say no.”

Opposition commanders in Damascus report that some government security and intelligence units have moved wholesale into schools, university dormitories and other civilian institutions like the Russian Cultural Center, which they believe won’t be targeted. Abu Hasan, a Free Syrian Army logistics coordinator in Damascus, says soldiers have occupied Damascus University dormitories in preparation for attacks. “The whole situation is tense. Civilians don’t know where to go any more because the regime is using civilian sites to hide its shabiha,” he tells TIME over Skype, using rebel slang for pro-regime soldiers and militias. Access to Damascus is limited for journalists, and there is no way to confirm his allegations, though several other witnesses interviewed over Skype have given similar accounts. “Part of the regime scenario in case of an attack is to hide in the civilian areas by occupying the schools, cultural centers, and public gardens in Maliki, Rokn el Dine and the western provinces of Damascus,” says Wared. Rokn el Dine is where Hasan was living before the soldiers took her house.

A captain in the presidential guard, contacted by telephone, contested rebel claims that military units were occupying civilian establishments, but he defended the defensive moves, saying they were a response to the “conspiracy against Syria. Of course we will redeploy out of our bases. The aim of the attack is to destroy the capabilities of the Syrian army.” He asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Activists and rebel commanders have independently reported that government security forces have moved prisoners into the abandoned military facilities in order to accomplish two objectives in the case of an attack: the elimination of burdensome and potentially dangerous opponents, and, if they are killed, the ability to reap the potential propaganda value of blaming Western intervention for dead civilians. The presidential guard captain rejects the allegations outright, saying “It would be insane to move prisoners out of the prisons. No one can move hundreds of prisoners.”

In his speech announcing that he would go to Congress before launching a strike on the Assad regime, Obama assured his audience that the effectiveness of such an attack would not be affected by the delay, even one several weeks long. Rebel forces are not so sure. They watch the defensive preparations with frustration and note the growing militia–ization of government troops that are fragmenting into smaller, more mobile groups.  They worry that regime forces, so spread out, may be forced to resort to the same cell-based guerilla tactics of the rebels. That may make smaller units easier to attack, but it could also lead to a new kind of warfare that isn’t so much about taking or holding territory, but destroying everything within range. “Their plan is to disappear [into the population] and launch guerrilla war,” says Wared. “The regime will use the Hizballah model in case of a ground military intervention and they will try to destroy the country by launching attacks from both the center and the coast.”

Even neighboring Lebanon is likely to be pulled in. Mohammad, a Lebanese smuggler deeply familiar with the myriad cross-border paths skirting official immigration posts between the two countries, has seen an alarming influx of Syrian military, and weapons, into the no-man’s land near the border village of Majdal Anjar. “We saw military trucks and rocket carriers deploying in the mountains between Lebanon and Syria,” he tells TIME by telephone. “We were terrified. We never before saw the [Syrian] regime deploying rockets or moving troops at night.” Through intermediaries the smugglers have been warned not to approach the area, about 300 meters from the Lebanese border, “because they have orders to shoot on any moving target.” For the time being, he says, he is using other mountain passes to ply his trade.

—with reporting by Rami Aysha/Beirut

125 comments
Rashed Alhamli
Rashed Alhamli

Assad learned the lesson that Obama just talk the talk!!

JonathanYu
JonathanYu

I think the U.S needs to understand that not all countries can setup a democracy.  When the U.S created democracy the population was mainly one race with one religion.  So it was easy for consensus to create an agreeable rule of law.  In other countries like Iraq, Egypt and Syria, they have religious sects.  The hardest to make consensus is religious sects because a religion is about one's core belief.  That is why I don't think democracy will ever happen in the middle east. And, maybe it shouldn't happen for the sake of preventing internal wars.  Good luck and bless to all!

Rodrigo Marcelo Estay Munoz
Rodrigo Marcelo Estay Munoz

Ezequiel 26- 9 : Y dirigira' el golpe de sus arietes contra tus murallas, y con sus hachas demolera' tus torres. Por la multitud de sus caballos, su polvo te cubrira'; por el estruendo de la cabelleri'a, de las carretas y de los carros, se estremecera'n tus murallas cuando entre " e'l " por tus puertas como se entra en una ciudad en que se ha echo brecha. Con los cascos de sus caballos hollara' todas tus calles, a tu pueblo matara' a espada, y tus fuertes columnas caera'n por tierra. Whos gonna safe you Siria , after all.

Mirjokhaer Dudaev
Mirjokhaer Dudaev

I think that US never striking in Syria because of Russia,China,Iran and also Hizbolla.

Rex Lance
Rex Lance

Prepaping for both scripts :-/

Germaine Tong Delos Santos
Germaine Tong Delos Santos

he looks like adolf hitler.. if i were him, he should focus on the welfare of his own people. its his obligation to protect his country with his selflessness and love.

David Harvy
David Harvy

Where is the international community when they are needed to peacefully resolve the situation in Syria?

Kenny Kissenger
Kenny Kissenger

They may be very busy digging tiny holes or draining pipe lines ( or ) inventing Syrian versions ... perhaps.

Donald O'Halloran
Donald O'Halloran

Imagine a ten day war, at this stage in life. And the Ethiopians have arrived.

ellert07009
ellert07009

@TIME Just like when Sadam moved WMD into Syria Remember the NYT asking where is the WMD after our military action

Zaheeruddin Agha
Zaheeruddin Agha

Past experiences of US attacks in name of stopping slaughters have created conditions for further bloodshed....there are clear chances of escalation of violence beyond syrian border which will have economic, political and sectarian ramifications.

Bill Ruthi
Bill Ruthi

Zaheeruddin, in the face of the slaughter in Syria, what would you rather the world did? Those neighbouring nations you refer to, most of them in the Aab League have done nothing.

David Griebel
David Griebel

How do you turn a SAM site into a really expensive fireworks display? With a stealth bomber.

AmilcarAlen
AmilcarAlen

.. es tan difícil ver cual es el verdadero interés detrás de todo esto? tan manipulable es la opinión del pueblo de USA? ... o es que creen que los dueños del dinero piensan en vosotros cuando se adueñan de los recursos y territorios? tan poco les vale vivir o respetar la vida? militarizar la zona del petroleo  y proteger al vecino dueño... no importa a que costo...

AmilcarAlen
AmilcarAlen

Entiendo que muchos que expresan su opinión, lo hacen con argumentos diferentes, lo más me preocupante es que aún existan personas que viviendo en USA expresen "Siria/u otro país, es nuestro"... son conscientes que no son dueños siquiera de su propia existencia? y aún así quieren ser jueces sobre la existencia de otros seres?


NickDuxfield
NickDuxfield

Honestly people, consider what you are saying and doing! Do you know what you did to Iraq? To Fallujah? The place is uninhabitable due to the amount of depleted uranium you have used in your weapons. Its now a radioactive wasteland. 

You roll into countries with your tanks using "depleted uranium" shells. But you fight against WMD's. Doesnt that go against your mission and protecting people? 

You went to iraq to remove the oppression of saddam from the people, then for 10 yrs devastated the people and country with 1 million plus deaths. 

Now you will do the same in libya, and syria. No sense!

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed

Dear Julie, Injustice must be stop by sword if one has guts, otherwise with his voice if he has guts, or at least it must be condemned in the heart if one can't express or fight. This is ISLAM if others do INJUSTICE, CRUELNESS & TYRANNY. I hope Christianity also do not teach you these three words.

Zaheeruddin Agha
Zaheeruddin Agha

Attacking Syria will further complicate region's issues and will highly destabilize neighboring countries.

Julie Martinez
Julie Martinez

Why would you say this? Are you a true Muslim? If so, Muslims don't practice hate, you are very foolish!

Ivon Dacosta
Ivon Dacosta

in case criminal u.s invades syria . world should follow bapu mahtma gandhi and bycot the products from u.s and other lap dog participating countries. that will make these plunderers and vikings think again .

azmalhome
azmalhome

i think that it's best solution to solve Syria crisis. " if Assad begin to suck Obama's legs, then all of Assad problem will be solve in there easily." 

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/


David Fadul
David Fadul

Yeah that's definitely what he's doing. I'm glad you noticed. The world is against you and you're so smart and figured it out. Want a cookie?

David Fadul
David Fadul

Not any of the above. No boots are going to be on the ground

kflizzle
kflizzle

Most Americans on the Internet make us all look stupid. But here's what I think: we should not attack Syria. I don't know why we think more bombs and missiles and death will help anything. But then I think- will what about history, you know what about the Holocaust and also what happened with Bosnia-Herzegovenia and Serbia in the 90s (why don't we learn more about that? I knew nothing about it until college) anyway and it's like 'oh but why didn't people intervene' though granted those were genocides this is a little different but still terrible. But the thing is, is that this isn't such a clear-cut thing as "oh they used gas on their people they have to be punished for breaking the rules" ok so we bomb them. what then? what will that help? the reason this is going on in Syria is because it's unstable and in war and the thing about war.... is that more fighting doesn't really make it stable because what about after the war after you bomb them and now their buildings are destroyed and people's family are missing, including their breadwinners so now they're struggling for resources- and this article shows how civilians are already being displaced by just the american threat. What do we really think is going to happen after we attack?? That everything will be just peachy between the government and the rebels and all the civilians will skip merrily about their lives like NO why don't we learn about the actual situation on the ground and how the people over in Syria are experiencing it rather than how we just hear about it from snippets of the news and that one guy at work. and also seeing as hardly NO OTHER countries seem to agree with us on this one.. just why do we need to do that. I just think to attack Syria is an irrational decision and is one that is being discussed without a wide enough scope of the issues at hand here. Bombing will help no one.

KarenHenleyMoore
KarenHenleyMoore

After serious discussion with 2 16-year olds and a 58 year old in my home, who think we should do NOTHING.  I just scratch my head.  Hell NO, the USofA doesn't want to get involved.  But... How do we let a country use Sarin Gas on their people ?  So, as I sit here and be the underdog, of YES, The USA and EVERY SINGLE other COUNTRY that signed all the TREATIES Disallowing GASSING, AKA Weapons of Mass Destructions... I fein...  OK..  Hubby, Kids, You win.  You Are Right - NO USA Retaliation, since on other Country other than France, will honor their commitments to the THREE treaties...  Well, they are liars, and going forth no treaty is worth the paper that is signed.  So, our only option, in order not to go broke, is give the Rebels some Sarin Gas of their own to send the Rulers of Syria.  Probably a little less expensive,  and hey, if all 300 countries who signed the treaty to not allow it, don't back it now, I'm sure they won't mind!

thecrud
thecrud

Iran is all rubbing their hand by the time this is all done they will have bought us enough time to complete the bomb.

Then we never have to worry about America again.

thecrud
thecrud

I am getting more popcorn.

Jorge Fernandez
Jorge Fernandez

tens of thousands of innocent people have died. Will anyone in the world, please step forward and protect these people?

rorywong654
rorywong654

As soon as USA launches the attack, Syria should response with rocket targets on US interest in Turkey and Jordon.It is the only way for Assad to put USA in an odd situation with the escalation of the conflict throughout Middle East

Juan C. Fernandez
Juan C. Fernandez

More like Russian advisors - hello...First thing you want to do is put your pants on, one leg at a time - cause that's what you're going to end up doing anyway - when the US gets through w you!

Joe Clesca
Joe Clesca

Nice wig mohamed you make me laugh

John Connell
John Connell

Mohamed,,, I'm somewhat sure Joe, or dumb face as you called him, was being sarcastic.

John Connell
John Connell

Transferring his personal gold reserves to a friendly country?

kflizzle
kflizzle

I'd also like to point out that in general, yall America hasn't been all that great all the time either. it was only 50 years ago that we were spraying firehoses and tear gas on our own people because of their skin color I'm just saying and granted it's not the same as the situation at hand here but my point is that like, I dunno we like to think we're some great, noble dignity that just does nothing wrong and knows the way the world should be but we still really aren't doin so hot.

ps. a Canadian professor of mine remarked once that she had taught in many countries and the US was the only one in which kids/people used "we" so much to refer to the country/government. Is that true, from others experience?

KarenHenleyMoore
KarenHenleyMoore

Since NO Other Country, other than France..  Sorry typo

jmiller
jmiller

@thecrud Last I heard we have at least 3400 nukes and a missile defense system. No one would be able to set foot in IRAN for about 500 years by time we finished with it.