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Syria tense as its people wait for US missile strike


CIVIL WAR: Free Syrian Army fighters get into shooting positions near the Canadian Hospital in Aleppo yesterday. The country's rebels hope US missile strikes will tip the balance in the conflict in their favour

CIVIL WAR: Free Syrian Army fighters get into shooting positions near the Canadian Hospital in Aleppo yesterday. The country's rebels hope US missile strikes will tip the balance in the conflict in their favour

CIVIL WAR: Free Syrian Army fighters get into shooting positions near the Canadian Hospital in Aleppo yesterday. The country's rebels hope US missile strikes will tip the balance in the conflict in their favour

THE streets are emptier than usual. The cafes are quieter. Many businesses have closed altogether. Damascus is no ghost town, but it is not the place it was a week ago.

For two years its people have grown used to the thuds and bangs of mortars and shelling; the noise of a war between Syrians.

But now they are listening for a very different kind of explosion. Few here have any idea how terrifying a Tomahawk Cruise missile travelling at 550mph will sound. But they know it is coming.

When Barack Obama talked of a "limited, narrow" military action, he was trying to reassure the American people. It provided absolutely no reassurance or comfort to the Syrians watching his warning on television.

They are scared. Scared because they don't know what will happen. Scared that missiles might hit chemical weapons depots and spread poisonous gases over their capital. Scared that missiles might go astray. Scared that however bad the war has been until now, it could get much, much worse.

Many Syrians who stuck it out for two years here have decided that an American attack means it is time to go. On Thursday the queues of cars crammed with people and possessions waiting to cross the border with Lebanon were long. Around 12,000 crossed that day alone into a country struggling to cope with the exodus.

Back in the capital, the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, which has rarely had more than a handful of guests for the past year, is busy with rich Syrians who see it as a haven from US missiles.

Many in Damascus support President Bashar al-Assad. I have been at their demonstrations in recent days and heard them chant that they will die fighting for Bashar. Young, pro-Assad Syrians drive around in their cars, waving flags and blasting out patriotic music.

One well-dressed, middle-class woman got out of her car to berate me. "You journalists," she yelled, "only come here to see us being bombed, but we will not die!"

What I do not see, though, is what tens of thousands of Serbs did before Nato jets attacked Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. There are no crowds of Syrians ringing army bases to act as shields against America's missiles. There are no people on bridges with home-made targets pinned to their clothes. Syrians are not rallying in large numbers to Assad's cause.

Then there are the Syrians who whisper it quietly. "We hate the Americans and hate anyone bombing our country, but I hope they kill Assad and finish this," as one middle-aged man put it to me.

Others in Damascus are much more vocal. In rebel-held areas it is safe to assume they will shout with delight and relief as the first missiles hit.

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For once, the overwhelming firepower of the Syrian army will be trumped. The world's greatest military force will be hitting an Arab army that has tormented its own people and killed them from the air in their tens of thousands. US missiles will destroy many of the missiles that might have killed Syria's civilians. At least that is what they hope.


But beneath it all, there's a niggling worry that America might be about to get it spectacularly wrong; that it will deliver a slap on the wrist that Assad will brush away.

There are reports that the Syrian army has spent days moving equipment from its bases: Scud missiles, tanks, missile launchers, even computers. It is safe to assume the air force will not be leaving its MiG warplanes on the runways as convenient targets.

So what happens if America's missiles make a big noise and a few big holes on airfields but otherwise do no significant damage to Assad's war machine?

President Obama will have delivered a message but not a very convincing one. He will claim to have degraded Assad's ability to deploy chemical weapons, but will he really have deterred him from any future use?

What if Syria's army launches another chemical attack on a suburb in a week's time? What will Mr Obama do then? Another strike, but bigger? What if Assad appears untouched, unmoved, unaltered in his determination to crush Syria's rebels by whatever means necessary?

As the world listened to Mr Obama's warnings, Damascus was already echoing to the sound of artillery shelling in its suburbs. Loud explosions detonated every few minutes as Assad's forces tried to press home the advantage they seem to have gained in recent months. They have taken key areas in the city of Homs, now they want to finish off the rebel rump in Damascus. No one here seriously expects this barrage to stop because of a limited US strike.

The presence of UN weapons inspectors was some kind of shield for Damascus.

For as long as they continued their work in the city, Syrians were sure the Americans would not attack. But the inspectors left yesterday morning, leaving most here to assume that a strike would come within 24 hours.

So, they look to the skies and to Mount Qassioun overlooking Damascus, the ridge on which the army has many of its big guns, a ridge that will almost certainly be hit by an American barrage. In the upmarket district of Mazzeh, where the president, his family and many of the government's senior officials live, the streets were quieter than usual.

At the military hospital in Mazzeh, the soldiers on guard were edgy, although that may have been because they are not used to having journalists and cameramen in their compound, chasing after UN inspectors who were there to interview soldiers allegedly affected by gas attacks.

In one room in the hospital someone with a macabre sense of humour had placed a portrait of Assad directly beside a skeleton, the leader staring it in the face.

Yet if Assad ever contemplates death in real life, he shows little sign of it. His last appearance, with a visiting group from Yemen, was typically defiant. Syria will defend itself, he vowed, "with a brave army and steadfast people".

How steadfast those people really are is about to be tested yet again. At the start of the revolution here and for at least a year afterwards, people were coy about their loyalties; they certainly would not tell a stranger or a foreigner where they stood.

Two years into a conflict that has challenged those loyalties and people are much more open.

One man told me he had been on demonstrations chanting for change since the beginning and had almost been beaten to death at one by pro-regime thugs.

But like many here, he now no longer knows what to think. He would like to see the back of Assad, but fears the Islamists who might take over.

He wants change, but not from American missiles or Saudi-backed militants.

He is a proud Syrian, a secular, urbane man who weeps easily when talking about his three children who have no jobs and the son-in-law who was kidnapped months ago and has not been heard from since.

"What will happen," he asks, "when the Americans bomb? What will become of us? Where is this all going?" Then he looks away, staring into the middle distance and briefly, up to the skies and the ridge above his city.

Bill Neely is ITV News International Editor

© Sunday Telegraph

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