For most of the past 16 months, the insurgency against the regime of President
Bashar Assad has been confined to certain specific areas of the country. Assad
has also managed to keep the top levels of his own elite intact, and largely
The regime has done its utmost to preserve this situation, and
above all to maintain quiet in the two largest cities of the country, the
capital Damascus, and Aleppo.
But the regime has failed.
clashes in Damascus this week, the growing stream of defections and yesterday’s
bomb attack on the National Security Building in the capital, set the seal on
the failure. The deaths of Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha, Assad’s brother-in- law
Assef Shawkat and former chief of staff Hassan Turkmani in a bomb attack on a
meeting of senior officials in Damascus exemplify the sharp erosion in the
regime’s position in recent weeks.
The intelligence required for such an
operation indicates that individuals close to the Assad regime’s inner sanctum
are now providing information to its enemies. However, observation of the
fighting in Damascus suggests the latest developments do not yet represent the
climactic battle for the control of Syria.
The trend of events in the
Syrian civil war is clear. Assad’s power and options are dwindling; those of the
rebels are growing.
But the dictator is not yet finished.
the outbreak of fighting in Damascus this week appeared to erupt out of nowhere,
this was not the case. That misleading impression derives from the inadequacy of
media coverage because of restrictions imposed by the regime. In reality, the
security situation in Damascus has been deteriorating for some
Rebels fought government forces in the Kfar Soussa district in
mid-June. These clashes were seen by many Damascus residents as the writing on
A large number of middle- and upper-middle-class Syrians have
left the city over the past months. The overt security presence on the streets
of the capital has sharply increased.
The immediate cause of the fighting
this week, meanwhile, was a regime initiative, rather than one undertaken by the
Free Syrian Army. The government wanted to drive out FSA fighters from a number
of Damascus neighborhoods. It therefore began the shelling of the Tadamon area,
close to downtown Damascus, as a first step.
The rebels fought back,
challenging government armor, and the fighting spread to a number of other
areas, most notably the Midan district.
The FSA rushed large numbers of
fighters toward the capital, to take advantage of the breakdown of order in the
city. The decision by the regime to abandon the last pretenses of normality, in
order to try to prevent the erosion of its position in Damascus, is testimony to
its increasingly beleaguered position.
Still, opposition fighters
confirmed that despite the public proclamations, the FSA sees the current
clashes in the city as a test of strength between the sides, rather than the
final, climactic confrontation.
Two things should be noted regarding the
latest events: First, the steeply improved performance of the rebels over the
last three months is the result of increased aid to the FSA and other elements
from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. There are credible claims of US
intelligence involvement in this process, and less clear rumors of involvement
of Western special forces in the training of the rebels.
capabilities of the rebels are being felt in the realities of the combat on the
ground. They are now inflicting a steady toll on the government forces,
averaging 150 killed and wounded daily. It also looks likely that the FSA was
responsible for the bomb attack in Damascus.
Second, the pattern of
regime activity suggests that Assad does not believe the battle will be decided
in Damascus. Rather, the regime is currently engaged in a process of ethnic
cleansing in the north-west of the country.
It is trying to carve out an
area of purely Alawite population west of Homs and Hama cities.
recent massacres in Tremseh and Houla appear to constitute elements of this
Once this Alawite enclave is achieved, it will then form the
baseline for further conflict between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria.
Assad’s forces lose control of increasing parts of the country, they are
attempting to consolidate their position in the areas still under their power,
including the capital. They are doing so by all available means, including
helicopter gunships and artillery fire on civilian neighborhoods. The pretense
of normality is a luxury the regime can no longer afford.
So the outbreak
of fighting in Damascus and the attack on Assad’s inner sanctum represent an
important turning point in the Syrian civil war.
The rebels are winning.
But the latest events do not yet herald the beginning of the regime’s last
That moment has not yet arrived. When it does, it may well not
take place in Damascus.