Syrian troops move away from sensitive sites in Damascus

In this September 1, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen, black smoke leaps the air from government forces shelling in Damascus.  

Residents said troops had moved into schools and universities, which officials calculate are unlikely to be hit Syrian commanders were continuing to redeploy forces away from sensitive sites on Monday ahead of a postponed U.S. air strike that many in Damascus believe is still likely.

Residents said troops had moved into schools and universities, which officials calculate are unlikely to be hit if Barack Obama orders an attack following a congressional vote next Monday.

After a week of deep anxiety, his declaration that he would ask Congress to debate his plans to attack led to intense relief in the past 48 hours among many in Damascus, and well beyond.

Damascenes reported more checkpoints than usual in regime-held areas, but said the capital continued to function as it had during the past two years of ever more entrenched war. In rebel-held districts, where siege and deprivation have bitten deeper, locals claimed a sense of despair had descended after Mr. Obama’s speech.

“They were so close to doing something,” said Umm Latifa, the widowed head of a household of six children in east Damascus. “Anything to make [the regime] scared would have been a blessing.” In Beirut, where last week’s buildup was also acutely felt, the streets were at their busiest in several weeks and the tension appeared to have lifted slightly. But by nightfall yesterday, reminders of what might lay ahead resurfaced as Lebanese media carried reports of Hezbollah ordering thousands of its members to report to fighting positions.

The reaction to a strike from the powerful Shia militia, a resolute ally of the Assad regime, will be instrumental in determining whether the stated US goal of a narrow operation can be achieved.

Many in Lebanon fear that some form of retribution from Syria’s allies is inevitable, unless they are convinced that the propaganda value of riding out a short, sharp attack that changes little is higher than the cost of not responding. “This is a very big decision for Hezbollah — make that Iran,” said a Lebanese political leader who did not want to be named. “They want to create the impression that it’s all on the line for the Americans. But it’s bluff at this point. A game with very high stakes.” Lebanon’s fortunes, and the confidence of its residents, have risen and fallen roughly in line with those of the Syrian government. Two large car bombs in Tripoli, Lebanon, and a rocket attack against Israel quickly followed the suspected chemical weapons attack in Damascus of 21 April, prompting some Beirut-based political foes of the Assad regime to suggest the attacks were planned as a diversion.

The Lebanese Internal Security Forces have charged two clerics in the north, who they allege had confessed to dealings with Syrian intelligence figures in the days before the blasts and knew that the two bomb-laden cars had been driven to Tripoli from the Syrian city of Tartus.

They have also charged in absentia the head of Syria’s General Intelligence Bureau, General Ali Mamlouk, as well as a junior intelligence officer.

It emerged on Monday that Russia had dispatched a military reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean, where five U.S. warships are operating in the lead-up to a widely expected air strike in Syria. The Priazovye departed for Syria on Sunday, Russia’s state news agency Itar-Tass quoted a military source as saying. Russia’s foreign minister has previously said his country was not planning to become involved in a military conflict over Syria.

“This is the normal policy of any fleet in the case of an increase in tensions in any ocean or sea,” the source said.

The Russian deployment follows the arrival last week of the USS Stout, a guided missile destroyer, sent to relieve the USS Mahan. A U.S. defence official told AFP that both destroyers might remain in the area for now. Along with the Ramage, the Barry and the Gravely, the destroyers could launch Tomahawk missiles at targets in Syria if Obama orders an attack. A group of U.S. ships led by the aircraft carrier Nimitz have been deployed in the Arabian Sea.

On Monday, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said a U.S. strike would put the proposed Geneva II peace conference in serious doubt, Itar-Tass reported. “If the action announced by the president of the U.S. unfortunately occurs, it will put off prospects for the forum for a long time, if not for ever,” Mr. Lavrov said.

— © Guardian News & Media 2013

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