The deaths of several key members of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a bomb attack will provide a significant morale boost to armed opposition rebels as they launch their most ambitious offensive yet in the heart of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
In particular, the killing of Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, deputy defense minister and key pillar in the Alawite-dominated regime, suggests that no one in the regime is immune from the potential reach of the armed opposition, a grim fact that must send a shudder up the collective spine of the Syrian leadership.
Syrian state television claimed that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. A Syrian security official was reported saying that the bomber was a bodyguard to inner regime figures, which allowed him access to a meeting of the “crisis cell” of top security officials in charge of trying to crush the uprising against Assad rule. The Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition force, said that a bomb was planted in the room and that the attack was not carried out by a suicide bomber.
Other than Shawkat, those killed included Daoud Rajha, the defense minister, and Hassan Turkmani, a vice presidential aide and former defense minister. Ibrahim Shaar, the interior minister, was wounded, but Syrian authorities said he is in stable condition.
There were two claims of responsibility. The first was from Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group which said on its Facebook page that it had “targeted the cell called the crisis control room in the capital of Damascus.” A second claim came from the FSA.
“This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started,” said Qassim Saadeddine, an FSA spokesman, referring to the rebel’s “Operation Damascus Volcano” plan to bring the revolt to the Syrian capital.
The Syrian capital has been rocked over the past four days by clashes erupting close to the presidential residence. The opposition militants are lightly armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades against regime forces equipped with helicopter gunships, armored vehicles, and powerful anti-aircraft guns firing horizontally. Clashes were concentrated in the Kfar Susa, Nahr Aisha, Midan, and Qadam neighborhoods.
Is this a turning point in the 17-month uprising against the Assad regime? The headline-grabbing offensive in Damascus and the multiple assassinations of top officials in a single blow suggest it could be. The momentum does appear to be on the side of the armed opposition, which has slowly gained traction in recent months thanks to an influx of funds, equipment, arms, and ammunition from external sponsors. Defections within the regular Syrian Army, mainly among Sunnis, have increased and include senior officers, sapping the morale of those soldiers who continue to serve and placing more pressure on key, mainly Alawite, loyalist units.
Loyalists more determined?
On the other hand, those key military units remain loyal and possibly more determined because of the perception among Alawites, who make up about 12 percent of Syria's population, that they face an existential threat from the challenge to their rule mounted by the majority Sunnis.
Even at this critical stage, Assad continues to enjoy the support of Russia and Iran. Moscow described today's bombing as an “act of terror” and said the perpetrators should be arrested and punished. However, that foreign support may begin to decline if Moscow and Tehran believe that the Assad regime is beyond saving.
"Regime degradation and eventual collapse, or just full on civil war?" asks Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book on Syria under the rule of Bashar al-Assad. "I'm hedging as I don't know what collapse will look like or mean."
The disarray among the ranks of the bickering political opposition suggest that should the Assad regime collapse tomorrow, a smooth transition of power is the least likely scenario. Instead, Syria risks becoming engulfed in chaos, with multiple armed groups on the ground all vying for a stake in the new Syria. In such an event, ousting the Assad regime may only mark the end of the first chapter of a long dramatic novel.
Perhaps the more important question to ask is: turning point to what? The disarray among the ranks of the bickering political opposition means that should the Assad regime collapse tomorrow, a smooth transition of power is the least likely scenario. Instead, Syria risks becoming engulfed in chaos, with multiple armed groups on the ground all vying for a stake in the new Syria. In such an event, ousting the Assad regime may only mark the end of the first chapter of a long dramatic novel.