Middle East

Syria crisis: Damascus teems with talk of US strike

Little girl on bike in Damascus
Image caption Damascus appears surprisingly calm considering what it is facing, our correspondent says

Damascus is full of talk about what might happen when, or if, the Americans bomb. Of course, that depends on the vote in the US Congress.

Some Syrians are bemused that the leader of the most powerful country in the world seemed to blink at the last minute, and they will not let go of the hope that President Barack Obama has been scared off by the risks of attacking Syria and will end up losing the vote.

This week the tension has subsided, but everyone knows it will rise again as the vote approaches.

I watched a group of staff from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent being briefed about what to do if they have to evacuate their warehouses and offices.

Their manager told them sternly that the next time they heard the siren it would be for real, and they would have two minutes to leave the site, and another five to get to their rendezvous points.

The staff, all of them young volunteers, joked about being stuck in the bathroom when the siren goes, as if it was hard to believe what might happen next week.

'We'll hit back'

It is remarkable, considering what it is facing, how calm and normal Damascus looks. The capital is not at all normal compared to the way it used to be. But the people of the city have already gone through more than two years of war, so their skin is probably thicker than it was.

Plenty of Syrians agree with the Assad regime's line that the US will end up attacking, and talk endlessly about what might happen.

One scenario is that the US will target stockpiles of chemical weapons. People wonder whether that would make clouds of toxic gas drift towards them.

Another topic of conversation is the question of whether the armed opposition in the suburbs would try to follow up any American attacks with an attempt to break into the centre of the city.

And there is a widespread fear that another Western military attack on an Arab country would spark off a much bigger regional war.

A Syrian acquaintance, a supporter of Assad told me: "If they attack we won't be passive. We'll hit back and it would spread to Israel and Turkey, which would not be passive either."

It is not at all clear that would happen. The Assad regime did not react when Israel carried out some big raids on strategic sites in Syria earlier this year. One of them was so big it shook the capital city.

But the Israeli raids came as a surprise. The American operation, if it happens, will be one of the most telegraphed offensives in the history of war.

State television here in Syria has been playing endless videos glorifying the military, featuring brave soldiers, rampaging tanks and rocket launchers.

Advisories have been broadcast warning Syrians not to believe false reports about rebel successes or officials fleeing the country. President Assad has promised that Syria is ready to deal with any external aggression.

If the motion in the US Congress passes, Damascus will be on high alert from the moment that the result is announced.

President Assad and his advisers might believe, after so much bellicose rhetoric about retaliation, that their credibility among their supporters demands fighting back.