Syrian Uprising Faces Big Questions After Bombing

Maher al-Assad, Commander of the 4th Division

You’ve already heard the big news. Three senior members of Assad’s inner circle are dead after a bomb tore through a high-level meeting of defense and intelligence officials in Damascus. Those killed include: Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, Deputy Defense Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, and former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, who headed the regime’s crisis cell responsible for handling the uprising. Details are still flooding in hours after the assassinations. As the Washington Post reported today:

That the bomber was able to penetrate so deeply into the heart of the establishment could have a powerful effect on morale, not only within Assad’s cabinet but also across the ranks of the military and regime supporters who have thus far remained loyal.

Within hours, reports began flooding in of fresh defections from security services around the country. Though none could be immediately confirmed, the rumors demonstrated the potential for the attack to rapidly accelerate the disintegration of the government.

The Syrian revolt seemed trapped in a repetitive, almost rhythmic tug-of-war these past few months. While the rebels gradually improved their arms and tactics, the regime cracked down hard on specific towns, then withdrew, then returned later after having assaulted other cities. My understanding is that Assad was left with no choice but to trust the toughest Alawite units, made up of his family’s co-religionists. This meant that Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother, did much of the “heavy lifting” with his infamous 4th Division. The dreaded shabiha–an irregular sectarian militia–descended on multiple towns, terrorizing thousands, and killing hundreds even by all estimates. The rebels, meanwhile, were able to disrupt life in the capital only in recent days. Before that they were able bomb and raid some facilities but never came close to anything “decisive.” The newest reports suggest the regime is desperate enough to be shelling parts of Damascus.

Some commentators and Twitter users can’t control their glee. Others are convinced the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is stronger than Western analysts ever thought; they now say the FSA has the chance to topple the government. Still others believe this is at least the beginning of the end. I just want to raise a few questions here since we don’t know the whole story of what happened today—and so many people are eager to draw conclusions that may hinge on wishful thinking.

Is this the beginning of the end? No one can say. From the rebel’s standpoint, this is their biggest victory by far. It proves that Assad’s inner circle is vulnerable. But it does not necessarily mean that the regime is at risk of collapsing soon. Take the Yemen example, for instance. In June of last year, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was almost killed the same way. He spent months recovering in Saudi Arabia while his trusted allies—including family members in charge of military units—guarded against any change in his absence. Saleh ultimately handed over power to his deputy, but even now he is considered a spoiler in Yemeni politics, and his family still wields political influence and martial power.

How much control does Assad have? I wonder if Bashar is really calling the shots now. It’s important to note that Bashar is part of a system of corruption, favoritism, and privilege. He is president but his cult of personality doesn’t seem to hold the same kind of gravitas we see elsewhere in the region. (This might sound like a cheap shot but his lisp doesn’t help, neither does the fact that he was really the second pick to replace his father Hafez.) Bashar’s brother, however, is as tough and ruthless as they come.  And since Maher is in charge of day-to-day operations, one has to wonder if he decides what the scope, severity, and duration of the crackdown will be. After today’s events, Bashar is presumably making himself a harder target to hit. He will be exposed even less while his brother commands forces in the streets.

What effect will today’s bombings have on the regime specifically but also the civil war more generally? I think the conflict has mutated, and become defined so much by sectarianism that it will last longer than the regime’s hold on power. The sectarian nature of the regime makes it harder to ascertain just how much one man–even a president–matters to people who are now fighting for their lives. Civil wars can create their own logic; if both sides are fighting for survival, then neither has much incentive to lay down arms. Assad’s fate may not matter to a minority convinced it is doomed no matter what. I think it’s safe to say that today’s bombing is a game-changer if we limit our analysis to the regime. It’s clear they will pay a price for decades of abuse. But the civil war could last plenty longer, even if the regime implodes. There are simply too many scores to settle. So today’s attack could be the beginning of the end for the regime–but the end of the beginning for Syria as a whole.

I rarely post on Syria. While I follow news from the Levant, and have closely followed the Syrian uprising nearly every day for more than a year now, I’m no expert on Syria, Lebanon, or Israel. What do you think?

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