BEIRUT — Residents of Damascus shuttered themselves inside their homes, military buildings were evacuated, and soldiers packed up checkpoints on Wednesday as the Syrian capital anxiously awaited a U.S.-led military strike.
While potential options for military intervention were debated in the West, Damascenes did what little they could to prepare. The streets of the city were unusually quiet as residents said many had taken the day off work or joined thousands who have fled for neighboring Lebanon.
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.
“What else is left for us in the country anyway?” said Wissam, a 27-year-old Damascus resident who said he plans to leave for Lebanon with his family on Thursday and who, like others, did not give his last name for security reasons. “We’re scared for those who we know, but at this time of our lives, it’s every man for himself. We need to survive.”
He said his family will join what the Lebanese government estimates to be well over 1 million Syrians in Lebanon, including more than 700,000 registered refugees, boosting the country’s population by about 20 percent.
For those who decided to remain in Syria, trips outside the house were limited to the essentials. Instead of sending one member to collect the day’s allowance, entire families queued at bakeries to stock up on bread, said Nour, 22, who lives in Damascus’s old city.
“We didn’t manage to get any,” she said. “The bakery at the end of the street was too crowded. Usually you can wait for two or three hours, but today, the line stretched across the street endlessly.”
After about 21 / 2 years of conflict, the population of the divided Syrian capital expressed a mixture of defiance, hope, fear and resignation at the prospect of Western military action in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack last week.
Activists hope that strikes might spell the beginning of the end for the regime, despite assertions from Western governments that toppling Assad is not their goal.
“If it’s going to spare lives of innocent people and finish Assad forever, let it be,” said Susan Ahmad, an activist with the Revolutionary Command Council.
She said five military checkpoints between the Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh and the suburb of Saboura were dismantled Wednesday, presumably to give the West fewer targets to attack. Rebels also reported checkpoint closures on the Beirut-Damascus highway.
“We never wanted foreign intervention,” Ahmad said. “But the tyrant wanted it this way.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, there was resolution.
“Bring it on,” said Salma, a 24-year-old resident of the Jdaidat Artouz neighborhood who supports the government. “I believe that no matter how strong the American army and weapons are, the [Syrian] military has forever trained for war.”
Liz Sly and Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.