Syria in waiting: Life goes on as all sides wait for the American missiles

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

Syrians shop at a market in Damascus. Credit: Reuters

Abu Issa is ready. He is seventy years old and one of President Assad's fighters. Dressed in full camouflage, his rifle nestling against a long grey beard, he screws his eyes and shoots at the rebels from behind packed & bullet ridden sandbags. It is his third war- he was a young man when he fought for Syria against Israel in 1967 and 1973. But he's ready for another twist in this war. "The Americans can shoot their missiles - they'll get nowhere. The real enemy is on the ground but if they ever come or the rebels attack after their strike, I'll kill them both", he says.

Other Syrian troops nearby agree. Two young soldiers say the Americans and the French have been supplying and financing the rebels for months. "We feel like we're fighting them already. Once the Americans shoot, the rebels will take their chance and attack. And we will take their lives". They are part of a unit fighting street battles in one of the most scarred suburbs of Damascus. They trade volleys of gunfire across a narrow frontline- no more than fifty yards separating the two sides. Rebel shots take lumps of mortar off the mosque behind them, their enemy convinced they have a spotter in the minaret. But soon a very different kind of missile will be trained on them.

They've become used to artillery and mortars; their big guns pounding the rebels, the enemy returning fire with mortar rounds. But for the most part theirs is a war of snipers and single shots. They show me their sniper nests; one, sometimes two men, relaxed in chairs, coffees beside them, their sights trained on rebels through six inch cracks in the upper walls of buildings pock marked with gunfire and shell holes.

But America is now selecting much bigger targets and weapons these men have no experience of. The Cruise missiles the Pentagon appears to be preparing for its strike on Syria will, in truth, not be aimed at the suburbs and foot soldiers of Assad's army. They'll be pinpointed on airfields, command buildings, artillery positions on the hills above the capital; the sites where they hope to degrade the Syrian army so much that it cannot or will not use chemical weapons in the future.

And so the capital's people watch the hills and think about which buildings might be hit. Many have begun to sleep outside already. One park near a complex of army and government buildings is filling at night with families too scared to stay in their nearby homes. There are reports that a military radar system was dismantled at Damascus International Airport; that there was drilling and digging there. The airport is the site of many military buildings. Other reports suggest Scud missiles, tanks and aircraft have already been hidden. Intelligence and Defence buildings in the city are said to have been emptied of vital computers.

One soldier who trained at the base on Mount Qassioun, overlooking Damascus said the Americans might hit the mountain but the soldiers and the key equipment would be deep inside a mountain which the Cruise missiles wouldn't penetrate. The Americans also know this. They won't use planes in Syrian air space that might deliver the bunker buster bombs that could penetrate deep underground, so they'll deploy the Cruise missiles that pack a punch but destroy only surface targets and buildings.

"The Americans are on a very thin rope", an army commander tells me in his field office, a golden bust of Hafez al-Assad above him and a photo of his son and successor as President, Bashar, on the wall. "Obama has put them there and the strikes may knock them off. But what do you think will happen?" he asks me.

"What about Britain? Did the people really make the government say no to attacking us?" He wanted to know about British democracy, Sinn Fein, freedom of speech, our policy to Israel. He had a torrent of questions. But of one thing he was certain. "This attack by America will change nothing", he said, his chin raised, his finger banging the table.

"Yes, chemical weapons were used in Zamalka", he said, repeating the government line. "But we did not use them. It was the armed Qaeda! And now America is going to fight with them! How is that possible? How can they destroy secular Syria for their enemies in al Qaeda."

He said he was an Alawite, one of President Assad's religious sect. He pointed to a soldier in the room - "and he is Sunni. And outside there is a Christian. We all fight together. American rockets won't break this and it won't break our President".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Credit: Reuters

Their President has appeared in jovial mood in recent days. He joked with a visiting delegation from Yemen about the mess in Egypt and derided his fellow Presidents in the region as "half men". He holds the Arab League, which long ago expelled Syria from its ranks, in utter contempt. He sat, relaxed and genial, with a French journalist but his message was anything but; "ninety per cent of the so-called rebels are terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. The only way to cope with them is to liquidate them. Only then will we be able to discuss a political future."

President Obama has insisted that killing or removing Bashar al-Assad is not part of his strike plan, though it is his stated political goal. He and Secretary of State Kerry have stressed that any attack is aimed at deterring Assad from using chemical weapons. But it carries huge risks.

Many people on the streets of the capital are terrified that the Americans will hit chemical weapons depots, sending clouds of poison gas across the city. They are ready to hide under bridges and in parks, away from military buildings, but if the gas comes, they say, "where can we hide?".

They also worry about strikes on Syria's army and air force. America wants to weaken the means by which Assad can deliver chemical weapons. But if it destroys too many of the planes, airfields, helicopters and equipment that has given Assad a clear military advantage over the rebels, America might give al-Qaeda linked groups the opening they need to push on the capital and take down the whole regime.

Many Christians and Sunnis, as well as Assad's key Alawite supporters, are concerned that the secular, tolerant Syria they remember may be destroyed by an Islamist offensive on the back of American missiles.But most believe the American strike will do little and solve nothing. Command buildings may be struck but the commanders are unlikely to be inside. Already, some ministries and army barracks appear to me to be less full than normal.

For the most part however, normal life here goes on. The streets are busy, the traffic heavy and artillery pounds the rebel held suburbs throughout the day. At the luxury hotels the rich lie by the swimming pools, their businesses closed, their wallets open, their homes empty until this crisis passes. They believe it will.

Then Syria can escape from the international spotlight on chemical weapons and get back to the domestic slaughter with conventional weapons that has seen one hundred thousand die in two and a half years.