Today’s bombing attack in Damascus is a dagger in the heart of the Assad regime. The bomb took out key government figures and detonated only a short distance from Assad’s own presidential palace. Reports are sketchy but it is clear that Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha, a recently appointed Christian regime hardliner, is dead. An even more key figure, Assef Shawkat, Deputy Defense Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law, has also almost certainly been killed. Other vital regime figures reported killed include Hasan Turkmani, Assistant Vice President and Chief of Crisis Operations, who is widely blamed for the campaign of torture in the country, and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar.
Even if the regime survives for many months, or possibly years, today’s bombing will likely be remembered as the beginning of the end.
As has been the case from the outset of the uprising, everything the regime does to violently suppress the rebellion only strengthens it by undercutting support for the government and increasing sympathy for the rebels. An intensification of conflict might buy the government more time, but only deepens the likelihood that it cannot survive, even in a greatly modified form.
Several other figures were reported injured and possibly killed, and the blast took place inside the headquarters of the regime’s war effort. The government counterinsurgency and repression campaign is led by a group of less than 20 people, many of whom were undoubtedly in the room at the time of the explosion.
Assad’s brother-in-law Shawkat was particularly hated. Along with Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, Shawkat was a leading individual target for the rebels. He served as head of Syrian military intelligence, among other positions, and was a crucial cog in the family-centered regime apparatus in Damascus.
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this will be both a practical blow to the regime’s campaign by removing key figures and an enormous psychological and symbolic catastrophe for the Assad dictatorship. It is reported that the bomber was a trusted security officer, possibly even from Assad’s own bodyguard. The message is clear: no one is safe and nowhere is inaccessible to the rebels.
The regime still, in theory at least, has enormous military means at its disposal to crush dissent. Most of the armed forces have remained in their barracks during the fighting thus far, presumably because rank-and-file Sunni Syrian troops are simply not trusted to remain loyal and mass defections are feared. More worrying is the prospect of the increased use of air power by the regime, potentially including MiG fighter jets. The most grim scenario could involve the deployment of Syria’s considerable stockpiles of chemical and other special weapons, as was used by Saddam Hussein against Kurdish rebels and Iranian forces in the 1980s.
But significantly, this bombing comes in the context of the opposition’s touted “Damascus Volcano” offensive, in which the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups are consolidating their forces around the capital in an effort at either a decisive battle or a major psychological victory. Today’s assassinations certainly accomplish the second goal. Whether the FSA was directly responsible for the bombing or not (it has already claimed responsibility, as has a shadowy Islamist group, “Liwa al-Islam”), the assassination of these key regime figures will be understood by the government and the public as part of their campaign.
The rebel “Damascus Volcano” offensive probably won’t succeed in bringing down the government in the immediate term. But even if government forces secure a technical military “victory” and push the rebels out of the capital, the “Volcano” will probably have a similar effect as the Vietcong Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War: a military defeat that nonetheless demonstrates the almost certain outcome of the conflict.
The most likely consequence of the “Volcano” offensive and today’s stunning rebel success in eliminating key regime figures is a huge intensification of the conflict, particularly on the part of the government. The Assad regime still has considerable support in Alawite, Christian and other communities making up a considerable proportion of the population, as well as numerous and horrifying remaining military options. A Balkanization, or “Lebanon-ization,” process in Syria is already well underway, with sectarian and ethnic enclaves emerging throughout the country.
Assad will eventually fall. Whether the process will break Syria apart or not remains to be seen. But if the outside world, and above all the United States, remain passive observers, they can hardly complain about the outcome.