BEIRUT: With the threat of U.S. military strikes subsiding, Syrian regime forces are back to “business as usual,” reconcentrating forces and trying to consolidate gains after dispersing briefly, analysts said Wednesday.
U.S. President Barack Obama this week backed away from a pledge to strike the Syrian regime’s military facilities over its alleged use of chemical weapons after a last-minute diplomatic initiative was floated by Russia for Syria to be stripped of its chemical arms to stave off the attack.
While the threat of punitive military action loomed last week, Syrian military forces were reportedly sent away from military bases, with residents and opposition rebels telling The Daily Star that schools, hospitals and other civilian institutions in Damascus were being used to house officers and military units.
The sources also claimed the regime was using civilians as human shields by deploying in residential areas.
But with the possibility of a strike now subsiding, regime forces have redployed, resuming attacks against rebels who made modest gains during the lull, according to reports from opposition and rebel sources in Syria.
One fighter in rebel-held Jobar told The Daily Star that heavy shelling had resumed just days after the Aug. 21 alleged chemical attack that led to the U.S. threat, adding that “in the last few days, he [Assad] regrouped his forces. It was like he knew that America was not going to strike.”
Others said they had seen evidence that army units had begun being moved from their civilian hideouts.
Syrian warplanes bombed rebel suburbs in Damascus Tuesday for the first time since Aug. 21.
“It’s back to business as usual,” said Jeff White, senior defense fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It looked like there had been somewhat of a dropoff at [the] beginning of discussions of the strike. ... Now I would expect to see them return.”
But White said the rebels had failed to take advantage of the troop dispersal to make significant gains, something he put down to a lack of coordination.
“The rebels were able to take advantage little bit, around Qalamon, and there was effective fighting there. But there was no real upsurge in activity,” he said. He predicted the regime “will try to inflict as much damage to rebel forces as they can” ahead of any diplomatic talks, particularly around Damascus suburbs and Deraa.
But even moderate rebel gains and the forced dispersementof regime elements showed the threat of military strikes was effective in changing the balance of power on the ground, according to Amr al-Azm, a Syrian opposition figure and history professor in Ohio.
He argued the opportunity for the West to gain leverage at any talks and gain real concessions from the regime would be lost if strikes did not follow the threat of force.
“The regime, by dispersing their forces, made themselves vulnerable to attack and thinned their lines so where there was opposition activity you had some successes,” Azm said, pointing to the brief rebel capture of the Christian town of Maaloula and other gains in Qalamon.
“If they are moving [regime forces] back out then they are trying to reconcentrate to start counteroffensives. It’s back to business as usual,” he said.
“The regime’s only concern is to avoid being struck and hold on to the main line of power. They have no intentions of giving up. They don’t think they are losing – they think they are winning.
“There is no incentive for concessions if they think they are winning. Imagine how much more [the opposition] could have gained with coordinated strikes.
“The more degraded the regime becomes the more it is likely to come on board at Geneva,” he said, referring to proposed negotiations between the regime and opposition forces.
In Damascus, regime shelling of rebel-held areas has resumed at full prethreat levels.
“It stopped for a day, then the army was using more ground missiles instead of mortars and other items. Now its back to the same scale, maybe even more,” one Damascus resident said.