Friday, July 20, 2012

A Damascene conversion

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Wednesday’s surprise assassination of three key members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle may be the most tangible military setback for the ruling regime since the armed uprising began in mid-2011. Though opposition sources contacted by NOW Lebanon disagreed over the details of the attack, as well as the precise extent of its military significance, they were united in believing it heralded a decisive shift in momentum for the rebels.

It remains unclear who carried out the attack. It was first claimed by an obscure Islamist faction, Liwa al-Islam, and later by the Free Syria Army umbrella group. However, these claims were dismissed by Maher al-Esber, a Syrian opposition activist with ties to local coordination councils, who sees them as political jockeying for street credibility. “They are trying to outbid each other. Each group wants to be seen as the one doing everything, when in fact they hear about these operations in the media,” he told NOW. “In reality, these attacks are usually organized by a single person, perhaps with the aid of an accomplice. The people who carry them out are later surprised to hear on the news that someone else has claimed them.”

For his part, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Bassel Haffar, who divides his time between Istanbul and Aleppo, believes the operation was more sophisticated. "I expect this was a joint operation by more than one group,” he told NOW. “An operation this big requires a coordinated effort on the intelligence and security levels.”

In any case, opposition sources agreed that the blow to the regime was substantial. Haffar told NOW that, “[The victims] were the regime’s premier line; leaders whom Assad depended on for his and his family’s security. They also have influence outside Syria – heading activities in the region in countries like Jordan and Iraq. There is no doubt that their assassination has considerably destabilized the regime.”

However, while Esber agreed that “This is huge,” he cautioned that the bulk of the regime leadership remains intact. “There are still more dangerous [figures], such as Jamil Hasan, head of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate; Mohammad Deeb Zaytoun, chief of the Political Security Directorate; Abdel-Fattah Qudsiyeh, head of the Military Intelligence Directorate; and Ali Mamluk, head of the General Security Directorate. These are important people who are still on the ground.”

Nevertheless, Damascus-based activist Ahmad al-Midani anticipates a number of further victories for the rebels in the near future. “I expect to see major defections soon and possibly even the fleeing of remaining regime figureheads who might seek political asylum in countries still backing the regime, such as Russia or China,” he told NOW. “I expect victory will come soon, in a few days or weeks.” As it happens, on Wednesday the Guardian reported “immediate” defections in “[regime] units regarded as “diehards”” as well as the fleeing of several tank units.

But Esber believes the regime can hold off for longer. “Whoever thinks this is over does not understand the way the regime works. These heads can all be replaced. They have tens of aides still completely loyal to Bashar al-Assad.”

Indeed, Haffar expects a considerable escalation of violence on the regime’s part. “Already, the retaliation in Damascus has been fierce, and approximately 200 people have been killed across the country since the attack. We are witnessing an unprecedented aerial presence in a lot of cities. Escalation is the regime’s language at this phase.”

If correct, this is likely to accelerate what is already a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation on the ground in Damascus. “The siege on most neighborhoods continues, although there are reports of the regime partially withdrawing from Hay al-Midan, which has been stifled for the past four days,” says Midani. “We couldn’t even get bread in for local families and FSA fighters. Even the Red Crescent has had to close its hospice doors due to overcrowding.”

Despite these setbacks, the psychological impact of Wednesday’s attack may prove the most meaningful. Esber says morale among the opposition rank and file has never been higher. “The people’s adrenaline is at a high, while the regime’s is at a low. The Syrian people needed something like this.”

Bassem Nemeh contributed reporting.

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