Forces loyal to Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad evacuated positions throughout Damascus on Aug 29 following the departure of Pres. Assad, his family and top regime cronies on a flight to Iran the previous day, under the guise of a conference to discuss a Syrian response in the event of a US led military intervention in Syria.
The first indication of something afoot was no one reporting for work at key national security facilities in central Damascus. Syrian troops then began confiscating trailer trucks around the city.
Citizens on the scene reported those trucks being loaded up with light weapons and mounds of documents at the headquarters of the Syrian General Staff, Syrian Air Force Intelligence and the Palestinian Branch of Military Intelligence
As the evacuation got under way, rebel held districts were carpeted with a heavy artillery barrage by guns of the Republican Guard's 105th Battalion firing from Mount Qasioun to cover the evacuation and the retreat of the Republican Guard, and the Fourth Armored Division accompanied by the families of the troops.
The number and direction taken of the trucks and military units is unclear due to heavy fighting near major highways, possibly leading to use of alternate routes out of the city. Syrian military authorities wisely do not discuss military movements and no one from the Assad regime was available for comment.
Reports from Free Syrian Army commanders in and around Damascus indicate that the retreat is in a direction north of Damascus to an alternate base in the Eastern Lebanon Mountains along the border of the Hezbollah controlled portion of Lebanon.
Such a retreat from the nation’s capital certainly would not be taking place if Pres. Assad were still present in the city. With over 60% of Syria lost to the rebels including portions of Assad's Alawite homeland along the coast, and every other major metropolitan hub in Syria also partially occupied by the rebels, there were no options for Assad except a flight out of the country.
The retreat from Damascus, as with Assad’s departure is prudent preparation for a possible Western military strike. Syrian generals have watched Western bombing and missile campaigns in Bosnia, Iraq, Libya and Israeli precision strikes against both Hamas and Hezbollah over the years.
Pres. Assad and his generals have wisely concluded that dispersing command, control communications and intelligence (C3I) infrastructure to unlikely places and maintaining communications silence for the duration is the thing to do.
If a Western strike targets only WMD and systems capable of delivery, then Assad can perhaps return to Damascus and the C3I infrastructure along with him. Assuming of course rebel forces don’t press home an all out offensive as the Western air campaign is in progress.
Along with WMD, another advantage Assad’s forces currently have over the rebels which is likely doomed to destruction is the Syrian Air Force. Aircraft and helicopters are capable of delivering WMD and therefore will be near the top of Western target lists right after surface to surface missiles (SSM).
It may be possible to hide some aircraft underground as the Iraqis did in 1991 but, the majority will be found and destroyed, leaving both sides of the Syrian Civil War with only ground forces to do battle with.