Rebels say they’ll pounce
Syrian rebel forces say they are planning a nationwide offensive in conjunction with anticipated U.S. strikes against the forces of President Bashar Assad, seeking to use U.S. military might to force a decisive shift in the country’s long civil war.
Rebel commanders disagree on the level of coordination they expect with the U.S. and its allies, and made it clear they hope the United States will do more than launch the limited strikes President Obama has proposed to deter Assad from using chemical weapons. The rebels have been disappointed by America’s reluctance to get involved more deeply in the conflict.
The issue is now before Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an amended resolution Wednesday approving military action to change the battlefield momentum in Syria away from the government.
But many members of Congress, particularly in the House, have expressed deep skepticism about military involvement.
If the U.S. strikes, rebels said Thursday, they will be ready to take advantage, particularly around Damascus, the capital, where they say insurgents are infiltrating in preparation to attack.
“We are ready once the first rocket is launched,” said Col. Qassim Saad Eddine, spokesman for the Supreme Military Council, which oversees the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. “We will attack the military sites, not just in one province, but all over Syria.”
Saad Eddine said Free Syrian Army chief of staff Gen. Salim Idriss and the rebel command have been told they would receive some notice of a U.S. attack, perhaps a few hours in advance, but have not coordinated targets with U.S. or allied military personnel.
“The targets are already known,” he said, referring to Syrian military and command installations.
But one opposition commander, Col. Abduljabbar Akidi, who heads the Free Syrian Army contingent in northern Syria’s Aleppo province, said by Skype that coordination on potential targets is already underway in joint operation rooms in Turkey and Jordan with “supporting countries,” including the United States.
“If they strike the regime with a crippling hit, we will finish them off,” Akidi said.
The Obama administration has long expressed concern about Al Qaeda-linked militants being a major force in the rebel movement, and several members of Congress have cited that concern in expressing doubts about U.S. military involvement.
A key question is whether rebel coordination would involve only the Free Syrian Army or extend to other factions in the fragmented opposition. In practice, disparate rebel brigades often unify in battle.
Some insurgents distrustful of the West worry that U.S military planners might try to attack Al Qaeda-linked rebel factions under the cover of an assault on Assad’s forces.
Nonetheless, after having been outgunned for more than two years, the rebels are clearly relishing the prospect of having U.S. firepower on their side. Commanders say they want to be in position to pounce, especially in Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power, which is expected to be the focus of any U.S. bombardment.
“We are going to be ready to take advantage of the areas after a strike,” said Abu Jamal, nickname for a commander with the Farouq Brigade, one of the largest insurgent groups.
In preparation for a possible U.S. attack, said one rebel spokesman, insurgents outside Damascus were sending fighters into the capital with light weapons to prepare to seize government buildings. Some are said to be stockpiling weapons for an offensive.
“All sides are working together to take Damascus if the American strikes are truthful, and if they are targeted at the regime,” said Abu Harith, nickname for a spokesman with the Ansar al Islam brigade in Damascus, one of the largest groups in the capital.
Assad’s forces have been fighting hard to clear Damascus’ suburbs of rebel forces. The Obama administration accuses government forces of launching chemical weapons attacks in suburbs Aug. 21.
The rebels are not the only ones making preparations. Syrian officials have also had time to get ready.
The opposition has reported that the Syrian military has been moving missiles, aircraft and other assets from exposed bases to less vulnerable sites. Witnesses say they have seen Syrian soldiers crowding into schools and other facilities in Damascus.
To be effective, the opposition says, U.S. strikes must hit key targets such as the Mezzeh military air base in the capital or the army’s 155th Brigade compound near Damascus, reported site of Scud missile launches.
Abu Jamal of the Farouq Brigade said there were indications that the government was sending in tanks, other armored vehicles and artillery from embattled Homs province to bolster the defense of Damascus.
Rebels are hoping for a surge in arms supplies before any U.S. strike, but the evidence so far is mixed. In southern Syria, one commander has reported an increased number of arms, including antitank weapons, arriving via neighboring Jordan. But there has yet to be any uptick in materiel from Turkey, said a commander in the north.
It was not clear whether there is any connection between the prospect of U.S. strikes and the reported defection to Turkey this week of a former Syrian general and ex-defense minister, Ali Habib Mahmoud, a member of Assad’s Alawite sect no longer considered a key player in the government or its defense apparatus.
Abdulrahim reported from Cairo and McDonnell from Beirut.