AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad’s forces appear to have evacuated most personnel from army and security command headquarters in central Damascus in preparation for a Western military strike, residents and opposition sources said on Wednesday.
U.S.-led air or missile strikes on Syria look all but certain after the United States and European and Middle Eastern allies blamed a suspected poison gas attack that killed hundreds in the city on Aug 21 on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Army units stationed near the capital have confiscated several trailer trucks, apparently to transport heavy weaponry to alternative locations, though no significant movement of military hardware has been reported, possibly due to heavy fighting near major highways, one of the sources added.
Armored vehicles and trucks carrying troops were seen leaving the Damascus International Airport area, which includes three army bases, and heading toward the nearby town of Harran al-Awamid, opposition activist Ma’moun al-Ghoutani said by phone from the area, adding that lights had been turned off at the airport.
Among the buildings that have been partially evacuated are the General Staff Command Building on Umayyad Square, the nearby airforce command and the security compounds in the Western Kfar Souseh districts, residents of the area and a Free Syrian Army rebel source said.
Opposition activists in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia said several Syrian navy vessels had docked alongside commercial ships at piers reserved for civilian traffic, apparently to lessen the likelihood of being identified and hit.
Syrian military authorities do not discuss troop movements publicly, and no government spokesman was available for comment.
The General Staff building, one of the top military headquarters in the country, has been operating with reduced staffing since it was attacked by rebel bombs in September 2012.
But almost no one reported for work at that or the other buildings on Wednesday.
They said trucks have been seen in the last 48 hours at the cordoned off entrance of several buildings, apparently transporting documents and light weapons.
“You can drop a needle in Kfar Souseh and hear it,” said a resident who lives near the Palestine branch of Military Intelligence in Kfar Souseh.
Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior military defector, said from an undisclosed location in Syria that based on Free Syrian Army intelligence gatherings, the general staff command had been moved to an alternative compound in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains north of Damascus.
“Various commands are being moved to schools and underground bunkers. But I am not sure it is going to do much good for the regime,” Sheikh said.
Another resident who lives at the foothills of Qasioun, the mountain in the middle of the city in which elite praetorian guard units are based, said the boom of artillery, usually heard daily form the 105th battalion of the Republican Guards, had fallen silent on Wednesday.
“They have been lots of army trucks descending from Qasioun. It seems they have evacuated the 105 battalion headquarters,” the resident said.
Activists in east Damascus said barracks and housing compounds for the Republican Guards and Fourth Division near the suburbs of Somariya and Mouadamiya had been evacuated and troops and their families had gone into the city.
Abu Ayham, a commander in the Ansar al-Islam rebel brigade in Damascus said the army’s general staff and Airforce Intelligence had been evacuated, as well as several mixed-use barracks/housing buildings for the Republican Guards and Fourth Division on the eastern outskirts of the city.
“To all intents and purposes, the army’s command and control compounds have been evacuated. Before the threat (of strikes) they have been taking precautions by working more from lower floors. In the last 48 hours they have been vacated,” he said.
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by William Maclean, Will Waterman and David Brunnstrom