Some ventured out to join breadlines, which stretched even longer than usual as residents stocked up. The Syrian government, too, appeared to be doing what it could to ready itself. The army’s headquarters on Umayyad Square, the target of a double bombing last year, was at least partially evacuated, as were intelligence buildings, according to rebels and activists, who cited unusual movement and “intelligence” suggesting that senior officials had been told to head to alternative gathering points.
Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the opposition Free Syrian Army, said rebel factions had reported convoys leaving the headquarters of the army’s elite 4th Armored Division.
Meanwhile, the Scientific Studies and Research Center, a suspected chemical weapons facility in the northern Barzeh district, was evacuated, according to the opposition Damascus Media Center.
The evacuations suggested that Syria’s government may be doing just as U.S. Sen John McCain suggested Wednesday — “declare tomorrow a snow day and keep everybody from work.” The Arizona Republican was speaking out against Obama administration leaks regarding the timing and targets of a potential U.S.-led air campaign in Syria.
In pro-government areas of Damascus, a few small parades of cars blaring music were held in support of President Bashar al-Assad, residents said. Meanwhile, a call circulated on pro-government Web sites for people to stage sit-ins at the sites of potential targets and act as a “human shield.”
As rumors swirled that strikes could come as soon as Thursday, there were fears that the attacks would miss their mark.
“There is a huge sense of anticipation,” said Bassel Nabil, a 33-year-old who works in the largely pro-government neighborhood of Jaramana. He said that those living near military installations were fleeing and that the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq was proof of the potential for civilian casualties.
A friend who lives in the mountains next to an army missile launcher that “shakes the whole house when it fires” had left and sent his family back to their ancestral village, Nabil said.
But for some, the threat of imminent strikes was the final push to leave the country. The number of people who legally cross from Syria into Lebanon averages 3,000 daily, but it topped 9,000 Tuesday, according to a Lebanese security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. On Wednesday, the number reached 4,900 by 6 p.m.