At a meeting of top level ministers, a bodyguard assigned to the group set off a suicide bomb and killed Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, who was married to President Bashar al-Assad’s sister, Bushra. Wounded in the bombing was intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar. The men, along with Maher al-Assad, were the core of the regime’s response to the rebellion. The regime immediately appoint Fahad Jassim al-Freij, the armed forces chief of staff, to replace Daoud Rajha.
In the past week, the rebellion has reached into the capital city, Damascus. Though the regime has used heavy artillery and tanks in the suburbs, they are unable to enter the Old City, where the streets are too narrow for armored vehicles. As the bombing was taking place, fighting between regime forces and rebels was taking place within earshot of the Presidential Palace.
Since entering Damascus on a drive they are calling the “Liberation of Damascus” the rebels have been targeting military installations and the Shabbiha militia, which the rebels say are responsible for the massacres in towns and villages across the country. The Shabbiha, because they are not in uniform, can carry out these attacks and the regime can deny responsibility because witnesses affirm that no uniformed soldiers were going house to house and shooting women and children.
The rebels also targeted the base of the 4th Armored Division, which is led by Maher al-Assad, with five separate explosions heard close to the base in Damascus.
The regime’s response has centered on Sunni neighborhoods in Damascus, which was a tactical error. It has provided the rebels with the proof they desired that the regime’s response was ethnic and sectarian. While Sunnis are the majority population in Syria, the regime and the parliament are predominantly minority Alawite, a Shia sect. It was this imbalance in representation that was at the heart of the early protests for constitutional reform.
The al-Assad regime has, through its state TV, SANA, claimed that the bomber was a paid assassin sent in to the meeting by foreign terrorists. That has been their explanation throughout the 16-month rebellion – it’s terrorists’ fault and don’t look behind the curtain and see how our government has supported Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. The only way that narrative could work would be for them to specify that the “foreign backed terrorists” were al Qaida carrying out Osama bin Laden’s vision of restoration of the Caliphate, which requires controlling Damascus, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina. But, the post-bin Laden al Qaida has never asserted that they are following through on bin Laden’s grand scheme.
The International Red Cross finally declared Syria to be in the throes of a real civil war, which technically makes Syria subject to the Geneva Convention.
There are conflicting versions of the explosion in the ministers’ meeting, with at least two rebel groups claiming responsibility but getting the details wrong when they explained what they did. It may have been a single man who carried this out on his own. The Republican Guard sealed off the area, including the Shami hospital, after the explosion and no more information about casualties has been made available. The groups that claim responsibility are the Free Syrian Army, which is made up of defected soldiers from the regime’s army, and the Islamist “Brigade of Islam.”
The rebels have concentrated on attacks in the western district of Dummar, where there are army barracks and auxiliary military installations, as well as support systems for the presidential palace. The barracks is less than a mile from the palace itself.
The regime has suffered a few high level defections recently, not as many as Moammar Qaddafi suffered during Libya’s rebellion, but enough to be feeding the international press reports. For Bashar al-Assad, the more relevant comparison to Libya may be the ability of the regime to evacuate wives and children. The incursions into Lebanon by the Syrian army have cooled relationships with what had been considered a Syrian client state. Syria is surrounded by countries that are opposed to the regime. The Qaddafi family had a backdoor they could escape through, into Algeria where they were offered sanctuary, and into Niger which is still deciding how many Libyans they feel like protecting. To reach an ally, Syrians would have to fly across “enemy” territory to reach Iran or arrange to have a Russian or Iranian ship dock in a Syrian port to receive family members. Russian and Iranian ships have been deterred from reaching Syria in the past month.
Any thoughts of a negotiated settlement or transition are now completely dead. This is a civil war and it will have to work itself out. All that can be done is contain it within Syria and not allow it to spill over into Turkey or Lebanon. The United Nations can best serve the situation by starting immediately to deal with refugees into those countries, Jordan and Iraq, and assure the security of the Golan Heights where Syria meets Israel.