Syria reaches a tipping point

Planned killings of Al Assad’s loyalists are a sign of the opposition’s desperation and the violence will only get worse if the president stays put

Smoke leaping the air from Syrian government forces shelling in Rastan town
Image Credit: AP
In this image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network and accessed Monday, June 11, 2012, purports to show smoke leaping the air from Syrian government forces shelling in Rastan town in Homs province, Syria. Syrian Defence Minister Daoud Rajha was killed by a bomb which exploded during a meeting of ministers and security officials at a national security building in Damascus on Wednesday, state television said

The fighting in Syria has been merciless, and there will be no mercy in its ending. However the killing of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s most senior lieutenants was arranged; their bloody and precise exit presages more killing to come.

Initial reports emanating from state media that a suicide attacker exploding a car bomb was responsible can now be discounted. The building’s exterior was undamaged and this assault was too well-aimed. The Free Syrian Army claims it was an inside job, that up to 10 bodyguards and aides to senior figures in the security apparatus had decided to defect.

They were told to stay put and plant a bomb in the meeting room where the committee coordinating the regime’s response to the uprising met.

An Islamist subgroup — the Brigade of Islam — also claimed responsibility, but the two stories are not incompatible. There are Islamist groups both inside and co-operating with the FSA, and it would have taken a number of individuals with a number of talents to make it work. That would have included sophisticated bomb-making skills. Anyone who has read a history of the Second World War will have been reminded of the Von Stauffenberg plot, when a disaffected army officer planted a bomb under a table during a meeting with Hitler.

The Syrian opposition succeeded where elite German officers failed. Such skills — possibly learnt in terrorist training camps in Iraq — could be used against other Syrian targets. That does not necessarily demonstrate the involvement of Al Qaida with the opposition high command, the expertise is fairly easy to pass on and many other factions apart from Al Qaida fought in Iraq.

It is also wrong to claim that the Syrian opposition is already a fractious and possibly sectarian terrorist organisation, splintering into violent and uncontrolled cells capable of anything. But the rebels are certainly not a single force, and they have no single plan for ejecting the Al Assads from power or for what they would do if they suddenly found themselves in charge of Damascus.

Final chapter

Any outcome will be feasible — revenge, mutual distrust, competition for power between different political and religious currents. That also goes for the next and possibly final steps of the uprising, as the Free Syrian Army units in Damascus follow up the attack by taking on local security forces more brazenly. Such loyal elements as there are in the regime, including the Alawite militias, will then presumably hit back with added force and desperation in suburbs like Midan, which give the opposition its bases.

We have already seen in Homs and Hama, Houla and Tremseh how that can play out. One can hope that if the Al Assads did succumb to reason and take a plane to Moscow such violence would end, but there can no longer be any guarantee. The Russians are determined to stand behind their man. Neither they nor he seem to have any Plan B other than further resistance to the rebellion.

For a while last year — even when they bombarded Baba Amr to smithereens — it was possible to believe that brute force would succeed. By all accounts, the commanders who would have to give such orders to their men in the future are heading for the hills and the Turkish border.

If the president’s brother-in-law is not safe, which general is not looking over his shoulder?