BEIRUT - As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, the regime in 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 U.S. opts for 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 over 2 1/2 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.
One man said two members of the elite Republican Guards broke into an empty house he owns and showed him an official document stating they were authorized to do so because Syria is at war. A woman in another area said soldiers moved into a school next to her house.
That trend is likely to continue in the coming days after the regime won a reprieve following President Barack 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. This is the natural thing to do."
Obama said last week that he believes the U.S. should strike Syria for what the administration says was a deadly chemical weapons 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."