x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Assad forces hide in mosques, fearing a US missile strike

Despite the Syrian regime crowing that Barack Obama has backed down, their actions suggest they still fear a US missile strike. Phil Sands reports

A Syrian soldier in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus.  Syrian regime forces have not returned to the bases they fled last week when a missile attack was thought to be imminent.
A Syrian soldier in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus. Syrian regime forces have not returned to the bases they fled last week when a missile attack was thought to be imminent.

ISTANBUL// Bashar Al Assad's security forces are hiding in Damascus schools, mosques, a kindergarten and even a centre for the disabled.

The move suggests that despite the Syrian regime crowing that Barack Obama has backed down they still fear a US missile strike.

The US president supports a military response to chemical weapons attacks last month in the Ghouta and Moadamiyeh suburbs of Damascus that Washington says killed more than 1,400 people, but says he will wait for a debate and vote in Congress next Monday.

Nevertheless, Syrian regime forces have not returned to the bases they fled last week when a missile attack was thought to be imminent.

"The city still feels stressed, people still expect a US attack to come, they just think it has been delayed until after Monday when Congress meets," said one resident of the upmarket Mezzeh district.

"The regime is still expecting to be hit too. They have been boasting about making the Americans retreat, but they are still keeping their forces in civilian areas to avoid missiles."

According to information collected by residents from across Damascus, some of whom are with the opposition, dozens of civilian sites have been taken over by security forces.

The Amal Centre for the disabled in Barzeh is occupied by an intelligence unit intercepting telecommunications; the Baraem kindergarten in Midan has been occupied by a pro-regime militia; and Akram mosque, a major landmark in Mezzeh, is being used by a detachment of secret police.

Two other places of worship, the Saad mosque in Maliki and the Ali Ibn Abutalib mosque on the border of the Mezzeh Jebal and Mezzeh 86 districts, have been taken over as a backup broadcasting equipment store and relay station for state television, and a new base for a loyalist militia unit.

At least eight schools in the Midan district, including Bahjet Al Bitar, Zein Al Abedein, Aref Al Nakadi, Abed Rahman Al Kawkabi and Saad Saad, are home to either army units or the intelligence services. Numerous other non-military buildings have been occupied by troops.

Since Mr Obama's announcement on Saturday that he would seek congressional approval for military action rather than use a presidential prerogative to launch strikes immediately, regime loyalists have revelled in what they see as a victory in the battle of wills against a military superpower.

The state-run Al Thawra newspaper said the Americans had been forced into "retreat".

"Obama is delaying because he doesn't want to attack Syria and he made his red line a green line," said Rema, 35, a governmental employee who lives in Mezzeh 86.

Like many in that neighbourhood, she is an Alawite, the same minority Shiite sect as Mr Al Assad and the core elite that has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

"Obama sent his navy to frighten us, not to strike Syria. Americans don't want new wars, they have a lot of economic problems and they have no money to feed themselves, let alone wage new wars," she said.

Many of those in the capital seeking to overthrow Syria's autocratic regime have done little to hide their disappointment at Mr Obama's postponement - and possible cancellation - of military strikes.

"It would have been better for us if Obama didn't announce any strikes than saying he would and then taking these backwards steps," said Mohammad, 40, a shopkeeper in Baramka.

"If America takes no military action the regime will feel stronger and will just use more chemical weapons, it will prove to the regime that no state in the world is willing to tell Assad he mustn't do this," he said.

psands@thenational.ae

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