It isn’t the US cruise missiles that terrify Saleem, a pro-government militia fighter who survived some of the toughest battles of Syria’s civil war. It’s the rebel onslaught that could begin once American bombs start to fall.
Holed up on bases where loudspeakers blare patriotic songs, or scattered for their safety in tented camps, Syrian soldiers are bracing for an attack by a superpower which they have little power to resist.
Orders have been given to stand firm. Headquarters buildings have been evacuated, infantry dispersed into small formations, hospitals stocked with emergency supplies and radar stations placed at the highest level of alert.
“I’m more afraid now than I was ever when we fought in Qusair or Khalidiyeh,” said Saleem, referring to some of the most hard-fought battles of the past six months.
“If a foreign strike comes and the rebels manage to intensify their operations simultaneously, that’s a whole new level of combat. I’m still more scared of rebel mortars than US cruise missiles.”
Interviews conducted remotely with more than a dozen Syrian soldiers, officers and members of militia groups backing President Bashar al-Assad reveal deep fears as they prepare for US strikes at locations across the country.
Most of the soldiers were contacted by a Syrian journalist working for Reuters, now based in Beirut, who cannot be identified for security reasons. The soldiers he spoke to also requested anonymity or used only their first names.
Their comments reveal a military worried about its prospects after strikes that could reshape the battlefield in a war that has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven a third of the population of 22 million from their homes.
Many said their greatest worry is not the American missiles themselves, but the prospect that outside intervention could embolden their rebel enemies, who could launch an offensive and tip the balance of power in the two-and-a-half year civil war.
Although commanders spoke of unspecified plans to fight back against US attacks, junior service members described the notion of actually taking on US forces as absurd.
“Our small warships are spread around the coast on full alert, and why? To confront the US destroyers? I feel like I’m living in a bad movie,” said a Syrian Navy sailor reached on a vessel in the Mediterranean.
“Of course I’m worried. I know we don’t really have anything to confront the Americans. All we have is God.”
“WE’RE NOT IDIOTS”
Soldiers celebrated last week when US President Barack Obama announced that he would go to Congress to seek approval before launching strikes to punish Syria for a poison gas attack that Washington says was carried out by Assad’s forces.
A resident the Damascus suburb of Jumayra described soldiers at a nearby military research complex partying in the street, drinking spirits and smoking water pipes after Obama’s speech that put military action off for weeks.
But despite government declarations that Obama’s hesitation was a “political victory”, Syrians still expect that the reprieve will be only temporary. Preparations have been made for deadly strikes.
At a military hospital in Damascus, one medic said doctors had redistributed field clinics and restocked and hospitals and dispensaries. Ambulances had been fitted with supplies for emergency surgery, he said.
“I’ve worked here 10 years. The last major alert we had was during the war on Iraq. We were at 75 percent alert then. This is the first time I’ve ever seen 100 percent alert.”
Any US attacks will come after months in which the war had been going the government’s way.
Last year saw rebels make rapid gains, but this year government forces have fought back with the support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militant group, recapturing much of the central region of the country.
The main tactic that commanders said they were implementing to protect their forces from US strikes is to disperse them away from sites that would be targets.
In Homs, a strategic central province that is home to important bases and scene of many of this year’s government advances, the colonel of an infantry division said he had spread his 20,000 troops across the territory in small encampments.
Fuel, food and weapons have been discretely shipped at night to previously-agreed secret locations.
“We’re not idiots. We’ve evacuated our headquarters and we’ve spread all our manpower out,” he said.
He also implemented a diffuse “cluster” system of command to temporarily replace the traditional military hierarchy, in which the commanding officer sits atop a pyramid of subordinates.
The structure not only makes units harder to target but also proved effective this year in urban fighting, with government forces learning to operate more like both their Hezbollah allies and their rebel guerrilla foes.
“Now we have small clusters of 20 to 50 men. Each cluster works individually and their leader reports directly to the commanding officer. It makes us more mobile and effective on the ground,” the colonel said.
The central area around Homs, where the government seized back territory from the rebels this year, would be a main area where Syria’s forces will be looking to prevent the rebels from mounting a counter-offensive in the wake of US strikes.
“The area between Homs and Damascus is an area of concern,” he said. “Any attack on Homs is an attempt to divide Syria. If Homs is destroyed, it could open a route for the rebels between the north and the south, or re-open the route to Lebanon.”
Syria’s infantry forces have been hurt by low pay and tension between members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect and conscripts from the Sunni Muslim majority. Nevertheless, the colonel insisted morale was still high among his troops, and had actually been boosted by the prospect of US strikes.
“We’re stuck in the same trench out here, so the sectarian tensions have been subsiding because we’re all facing the same threat. Cruises missiles don’t differentiate between Sunnis and Alawites,” he said. “I have three Sunni soldiers in my office. I no longer see them as threats, I see them as my children.”
The government will be hoping that attacks will not be enough to shift the momentum against it. Assad’s forces and their Hezbollah allies remain far better armed than their domestic adversaries.
Washington has given mixed signals about its plans. The White House says any assault will be “limited”, and bringing down Assad is not the aim. US officials are also worried about tipping the balance too much in favour of rebels, many of whom belong to anti-Western groups linked to al Qaeda.
But Washington also says any strikes will “degrade” the Syrian government’s ability to defend itself. Among targets could be some of the 26 bases used by Assad’s air force, one of the government’s main battlefield advantages.
There is little Syria can actually do to defend itself from American missiles. Its air force and air defences would be of little use. Israel has already proven that by bombing Syria several times this year with impunity.
“There are holes in our defence system. Several fronts could be used against us,” acknowledged an air defence colonel in Damascus, who said his forces were on the highest level of alert.