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Insight: Assad forces fear rebel rampage in aftermath of U.S. strikes

A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon as he tries to locate forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Ramouseh area in Ale
A Free Syrian Army fighter points his weapon as he tries to locate forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Ramouseh area in Ale

BEIRUT (Reuters) - It isn't the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. attacks, junior service members described the notion of actually taking on U.S. forces as absurd.

"Our small warships are spread around the coast on full alert, and why? To confront the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 an 100 percent alert."

Any U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."

MOMENTUM

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. U.S. officials are also worried about tipping the balance too much in favor 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 defenses would be of little use. Israel has already proven that by bombing Syria several times this year with impunity.

"There are holes in our defense system. Several fronts could be used against us," acknowledged an air defense colonel in Damascus, who said his forces were on the highest level of alert. Surveillance and air defense systems have been damaged because they have been dismantled in rebel-held areas, the air defense colonel said.

He said he did not know exactly what Syria would do to retaliate against U.S. strikes, but insisted there were plans to fight back.

"We have all kinds of scenarios, we have plans A,B,C and D, so to speak," he said. "I don't know what the exact response will be, but I can tell you we won't just sit and watch."

Air defenses themselves could be among the first targets.

"My friends here are a bit scared, and I am afraid too," said Nawrath, a 23-year-old soldier on an air defense base. "We're on a radar base between Homs and Damascus. Of course we are on the target list. But in the end, death is all the same."

Nawrath said air force commanders had been scrambling to increase their scope of coverage ahead of a potential attack.

"They are trying to prepare plans to prevent aircraft from entering and to widen our coverage area."

Whatever will come next, civilians say they are likely to suffer. Those who live in pro-government areas are worried about rebel advances if the military takes too much damage.

"State TV tells us every day that the rebels are taking one big defeat after the other, but we can see that they are around us, just a few blocks away," said shopkeeper Jamal, in the Damascus Shi'ite neighborhood of Hay al-Amin.

All that stands between the rebels and the old city are a sports stadium being used as a military barracks and an intelligence base, he said. "And if the U.S. hits hard, there will be nothing."

A woman in Damascus said civilians would bear the brunt no matter what - whether U.S. strikes tip the balance in the rebels' favor or leave the army with the upper hand.

"Either the American strike could end up too weak and the regime will take revenge against Damascenes. Or it could be too strong and the rebels will take over and make little effort to distinguish between collaborators and those who supported the revolution," she said.

(Reporting by a journalist who cannot be identified for security reasons; Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)

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