Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are redeploying their resources in rebel-held parts of Syria amid widespread fears that any strikes carried out by the United States would target not only the Syrian government but also Islamists in the opposition, according to rebels and activists.
In many parts of the northern and eastern provinces that have fallen almost entirely under rebel control, extremist groups have been evacuating headquarters, moving military equipment and, in some instances, fleeing to what is considered safer ground in mountainous terrain.
The moves mirror preparations by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, which are in the process of shifting troops and armor out of major military facilities and into schools and residential neighborhoods, witnesses and residents say.
The Obama administration stressed Thursday that a decision to attack Syria has not yet been made, amid continued efforts to calibrate a response to last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack. The United States has also given no indication that any of the extremist groups in the Syrian opposition would be on its list of targets, even though two key groups are designated terrorist organizations – Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has expanded into Syria from Iraq.
But the threats of action against Assad have already sown widespread panic along many fronts within the bitterly divided country, in just one indication of the profound complexity of the conflict in which the United States has long resisted entanglement.
“Why did they wait until the Islamists are in control to make this strike?” asked Saleh al-Idlibi, a spokesman in Idlib province for the Liwa al-Umma brigade, an Islamist group that has not been designated a terrorist organization by the United States but that supports those that are. “This is why the jihadi groups are afraid.”
In a statement disseminated on the Twitter account of one of its supporters, the radical group Fateh al-Islam offered advice to Islamists, warning that for every U.S. missile that hits a regime target, another will strike a jihadi base.
“Start changing your locations, and use safe houses, and don’t move around in obvious convoys,” said the supporter, Abdullah Saker, detailing precautionary measures. “Take away mobile phones from the troops, and send them away from the leadership.”
“America destroyed jihadi bases in a very short period of time in Afghanistan and Iraq, and killed a large number of them, because they weren’t prepared. So don’t fall in the trap of laziness,” he added.
Even among rebels who have long hankered for Western help in their fight against Assad, there is widespread confusion over the prospect that the United States might finally intervene, 21 / 2 years after Syrians first rose up to demand greater freedoms.
The Free Syrian Army, which claims to represent a majority of the rebel units fighting in Syria, welcomed the Obama administration’s threats of retaliation for the alleged chemical attack.
Syrians would prefer to overthrow Assad without foreign help, but if the West does carry out strikes, the Free Syrian Army intends to take advantage of any disarray in the ranks of regime forces to advance its own positions, said Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the FSA.
“We are going, for sure, to make the most of this operation to increase our situation on the ground, to try and control and liberate more areas,” he said. “This is our right. Our fighters on the ground should use anything, even a change in the weather if it will help them, and if your enemy faces another side, we should use this.”
However, those who support intervention expressed concerns about how the strikes would unfold and what effect they would have — if any — on the raging war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
“People here are very worried the strikes will be intended to help the regime,” said Abu Hamza, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Darayya, where some of the fiercest battles of the war have left a town of nearly 500,000 a ravaged, emptied ruin. “Of course I support it if it means ending the bloodshed, but there has been killing for 2.5 years, so why should we believe the United States is serious now?”
“People lost trust in the U.S. government,” he added. “They think the U.S. will only act for its own benefit.”
In one measure of the immense level of distrust, several rebels and activists cited the seeming delay in carrying out the attacks – widely rumored to be launched Thursday – as intended to give the government time to relocate its military assets.
In the central city of Homs, where government forces have made significant advances into rebel-held territory in recent months, government forces have spent the past two days vacating known military facilities and moving into civilian buildings, said Abu Emad, a resident and activist.
Large numbers of troops were moved into the building housing the Women’s Association and Homs University, he said, and tanks and artillery were redeployed to residential neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, extremist groups have been emptying their headquarters in the key northern city of Aleppo, which has been split down the middle by a largely static front line dividing regime and rebel-held territory for the past year.
Convoys of vehicles carrying fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Ahrar al-Sham — a Syrian Salafi group — streamed out of the city Thursday, abandoning their headquarters, witnesses said.
Adil Fstk, a logistics coordinator with the Tawheed Brigade, the biggest Free Syrian Army unit in Aleppo, said the fighters were heading for mountains in the west of the province.
“I am afraid, too,” he said. “Does America think we are terrorists?”
In Damascus, where Islamists have not secured the same levels of influence that they have won in the north, fighters are hoping for U.S. strikes that will degrade the military capabilities of the regime, said Abu Qatada, a spokesman for the rebel Damascus Military Council.
But he fretted about the lack of coordination between the mainstream Free Syrian Army and the United States, leaving rebel fighters unsure how they would respond to sudden disarray among regime forces.
“We are worried and anxious because, honestly, we need to know what our role is . . . and we don’t know what steps we should take,” he said.