The US has stepped back from an immediate response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria on Aug. 21. But Washington continues to profess certainty that Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad is behind the attack. The situation on the ground provides clues as well.
Two and a half years after the beginning of the uprising, Damascus has become an eerily empty city. The streets were deserted last Friday evening in the remaining regime-controlled districts — from Bab Tuma in the east to Mezzeh in the west — where there is still electricity, running water and phone service.
The Syrian capital was bracing itself for the worst. Last Thursday alone, over 10,000 people reportedly fled across the border into Lebanon, and hundreds of families of soldiers have left their apartments.
The headquarters of the intelligence agencies had been largely vacated and, according to one guard on duty, nearly all Alawite officers and generals had headed for the port city of Tartus and the surrounding area.
And Mount Kassioun, which overlooks the city and has been used by the 4th division to shell rebel positions in the suburbs, was said to have been completely evacuated. Instead, artillery had been deployed in residential districts and aimed at the mountain amid growing fears that the rebels could take the stronghold.
Already last Wednesday, the army had ammunition transferred to the National Museum, while the most precious exhibits have apparently been moved to the basement of the central bank. Local witnesses said that tanks had been dispatched from the international airport to surrounding villages.