BEIRUT – As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, the regime in Damascus is hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of bases into civilian areas.
Politically, President Bashar Assad has gone on the offensive, warning in a rare interview with Western media that any military action against Syria could spark a regional war.
If the U.S. undertakes missile strikes, Assads reaction could have a major effect on the trajectory of Syrias civil war. Neighboring countries could get dragged into a wider conflict, or it could be back to business as usual for a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people over 2 1/2 years.
The main Western-backed opposition group says that during the buildup last week to what seemed like an imminent U.S. attack, the army moved troops as well as rocket launchers, artillery and other heavy weapons into residential neighborhoods in cities nationwide. Three Damascus residents, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, confirmed such movements.
One man said two members of the elite Republican Guards broke into an empty house he owns and showed him an official document stating they were authorized to do so because Syria is at war. A woman in another area said soldiers moved into a school next to her house.
A U.S. official confirmed there are indications that the Syrian regime is taking steps to move some of its military equipment and bolster protection for defense facilities.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that at this point, the U.S. has the information it needs to maintain a good handle on what the regime is doing to prepare.
The Syrian regime knows there are 30-40 potential targets for U.S. airstrikes, and they have had ample time to prepare, said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and director of the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut. Half of them, if not more, have been evacuated, moved or camouflaged. This is the natural thing to do.
In an interview published Monday with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Assad refused to say how Syria would respond to Western strikes, but warned that the risk of a regional war exists.
The regime has a range of options if the U.S. does bomb. It could retaliate with rockets against U.S. allies in the region.
It could unleash allies like Hezbollah against Western targets abroad.
Or it could do nothing – and score propaganda points by portraying itself as victim of U.S. aggression.
The regimes choice, analysts say, will probably depend on the magnitude of the American military action.
If Washington follows through with calibrated strikes, analysts say, Assad may reach for a political card, not a military one.
His first option is propaganda value, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. Assad could try to foster the notion that the West is again attacking a Middle Eastern state, an Arab state, without the right international legitimacy. And he can bolster that dynamic, that narrative, by showing that its had a cost on innocent civilians.