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Carolyn Kaster | Associated Press
Protesters against U.S. military action in Syria carry signs and a Syrian flag in front of the White House on Monday.

Syrians danced on beaches as U.S. warships took position

BEIRUT – As U.S. warships carrying cruise missiles reached the Mediterranean, Syrian revelers danced in defiance to tunes extolling their president.

“These songs put us in a beautiful mood,” said Nazhat Haj Ali, a supporter of Bashar Assad, describing the beach party on the sea’s eastern shore he had organized in the coastal city of Tartus four days ago. “Let the warships come. Our president is strong, and if they attack, he will emerge stronger.”

With the United Nations Security Council split over intervention in Syria’s civil war and rebel forces turning on each other, there’s growing concern among Assad’s opponents that Haj Ali’s prediction might come true.

Congress in Washington started deliberations Monday on whether to allow President Barack Obama to strike Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack last month after the British Parliament voted against taking part in any action. Some humanitarian groups say insufficient force may lead to reprisals against the people the intervention aims to protect and add to the flood of refugees escaping the crumbled economy.

If the U.S. action is like a “bee sting” and doesn’t degrade Assad’s military power, “he will retaliate brutally against his people and prolong the crisis,” Aktham Naisse, a human rights campaigner who belongs to Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, said by phone from Paris.

Obama has said an attack would be “limited in duration and scope” to punish the Syrian government over the Aug. 21 use of nerve gas the U.S. blamed on Assad. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday the strategy on Assad was “inexplicable to a normal American.”

“We’re going to sort of punch you, but we’re not going to punch you too hard and we really would like you to leave but we don’t want you to leave enough to get rid of you, and we hope there’s a political solution although we haven’t got a clue what it is,” he said. “That’s very hard to build momentum for.”

Syrians are more concerned with what happens after the U.S. missiles hit than the attack itself, which they expect to target military installations and avoid population centers.

One Damascene, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said residents are worried the rebels fighting to topple Assad will exploit an opening in the government’s defenses and storm the Syrian capital.

Damascenes are haunted by the prospect of civil war in their city, the man said by telephone.

The city remained relatively quiet in the first half of the crisis, escaping most of the violence that has devastated other provinces since the uprising began in March 2011. That changed when the rebels stepped up their attacks on its suburbs last year. Today, mortars fall indiscriminately, bombs explode in the streets and checkpoints choke traffic.

Assad’s allies are steadfast. On the slopes of Mount Qassioun, which has a panoramic view of the capital, pro-Assad activists calling themselves “Over Our Dead Bodies” have pitched tents to show opposition to a U.S. strike.

The sit-in will remain until the danger of an attack is over, Ghassan Najjar, a Lebanese who helped organize the campaign, said from Damascus.

The threat of U.S. action came after what the Obama administration says was an Aug. 21 gas attack by government forces that killed more than 1,400 people in the Ghouta area around Damascus. Syria has denied the allegations, blaming radical Islamists for it.

The Mideast is a “powder keg” and any attack on Syria would reverberate across the region, Assad told Le Figaro in an interview published last week.

His opponents say a U.S. strike is an opportunity to shift the balance of power in their favor. Col. Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the Free Syrian Army’s high command, said the rebels are ready to “pounce” on targets as soon as the first U.S. missile is launched.

A U.S. attack would come in the absence of a political strategy that spells out how a transition will be negotiated, said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut.

“Without it, any impact of the strike will be temporary and limited,” Sayigh said. Syrians who may favor a deal would not want to “risk their necks in the complete absence of a feasible political process,” he said.

While party-goers were getting ready in Tartus, a summer vacation spot where Russia has its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union, the Assad government maintained the facade of business-as-usual it has adopted throughout the war.

On Aug. 26, the minister for environmental affairs, Nazira Serkis, reviewed ways of making Syria green, calling for a reduction of emissions to improve air quality, state-run SANA reported. Two days earlier, she opened an air market that sells eco-friendly products, including honey, medicinal herbs and silk products, the news agency said.

The government has also assured citizens it has enough reserves of food, and bakeries would continue to work round the clock as the war-town economy lurches.

The Syrian pound, which traded at 47 to the dollar before the war, has weakened to over 200 on the black market, leading to price increases. Many Syrians who have relocated from conflict areas have lost jobs, and the possibility of the strike dims the prospect of an end to their woes.

Inflation is 40 percent, Central Bank Governor Adib Mayaleh said in a June 14 interview. Foreign reserves are “close to being exhausted,” the Economist Intelligence Unit said in an Aug. 23 report. More than 6 million people have been displaced and 100,000 killed since the crisis began in March 2011, according to the UN.

“The future is bleak,” said Diaa Gharib, a father of three who has been jobless since he was displaced from the central Homs city about 18 months ago.

Back on the beach in Tartus, Haj Ali said 1,000 people attended the two beach parties, with the invitation on Facebook asking people to come and “greet the U.S warships on the Syrian coast.” The $11.60 entry included two drinks, according to the poster.

“We’re proud of our president,” said Haj Ali, a day after the Sept. 6 party, speaking from the Mediterranean city of Latakia, north of Tartus. “We’re not scared.”