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