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Reports say Syria regime on move

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 9:36 p.m.
A child walks past tents on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in a Syrian refugees camp in Yayladagi, Turkey. The civil war in Syria has forced more than 2 million people out of the country.

BEIRUT — As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, Damascus is hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of bases into civilian areas.

Politically, President Bashar Assad has gone on the offensive, warning in a rare interview with Western media that any military action against Syria could spark a regional war.

If the United States undertakes missile strikes, Assad's reaction could have a major effect on the trajectory of Syria's civil war. Neighboring countries could get dragged into a wider conflict, or it could be back to business as usual for a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people during 2½ years.

The main Western-backed opposition group says that during the buildup last week to what seemed like an imminent U.S. attack, the army moved troops as well as rocket launchers, artillery and other heavy weapons into residential neighborhoods in cities nationwide. Three Damascus residents, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, confirmed such movements.

A U.S. official confirmed there are indications that the Syrian regime is taking steps to move some of its military equipment and bolster protection for defense facilities.

The trend inside Syria is likely to continue in the coming days now that the regime has won a reprieve with President Obama's decision to seek congressional approval for military action.

“The Syrian regime knows there are 30-40 potential targets for U.S. airstrikes, and they have had ample time to prepare,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and director of the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut. “Half of them, if not more, have been evacuated, moved or camouflaged.”

Obama said last week that he believes the United States should strike Syria for what the administration says was a deadly chemical attack by Assad's forces on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. The administration has stressed, however, that any operation would be limited and not aimed at tipping the balance of power in Syria's civil war.

In an interview published Monday with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Assad refused to say how Syria would respond to Western strikes but warned that “the risk of a regional war exists.”

The regime has a range of options if the United States does bomb. It could retaliate with rockets against U.S. allies in the region. It could unleash allies such as Hezbollah against Western targets abroad. Or it could do nothing — and score propaganda points by portraying itself as victim of American aggression.

The regime's choice, analysts say, probably would depend on the magnitude of the American military action: The bigger and more sustained the strikes, the more likely the government in Damascus will feel compelled to respond.

If Washington follows through with calibrated strikes, analysts say, Assad may reach for a political card, not a military one.

“His first option is propaganda value,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. Assad could try to foster the notion “that the West is again attacking a Middle Eastern state, an Arab state, without the right international legitimacy. And he can bolster that dynamic, that narrative, by showing that it's had a cost on innocent civilians.”

In terms of military responses, Assad could launch rockets at U.S. allies Turkey, Jordan or Israel.

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