Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is scrambling to stop his family’s four-decade grip on power unraveling after yesterday’s bomb attack in Damascus killed key members of his military establishment.
As the United Nations continues to stall on action, Al Arabiya reported there are pockets of fighting throughout Damascus this morning and an explosion was heard near the government’s cabinet office. Some 200 people were killed yesterday, the broadcaster said, after a blast wiped out Assad’s brother-in-law, his defense minister and the vice president’s military adviser at Syria’s national security headquarters.
“This is very much the beginning of the end for Assad,” Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said in a telephone interview. “This was an extremely professional operation by the rebels and a big blow.”
The deaths of Syria’s most senior officials since the uprising started in March 2011 “makes clear” that the 46-year-old Assad is losing control of the country, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. Still, the international community has been powerless to stop the rising death toll in a 17-month long insurgency that now has reached Damascus, the capital, where security forces have battled rebels for the past four days.
“The violence there has only gotten worse, and the loss of life has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that’s rapidly spinning out of control,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a news conference yesterday.
Yesterday’s attack killed Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat; Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah and vice president’s military adviser, Hasan Turkmani. Other officials including the interior minister were injured, according to state television. Shawkat served as deputy defense minister and deputy chief of staff for security.
The latest developments prompted the UN Security Council to delay until today a vote threatening Syria with sanctions unless Assad complies with a UN peace plan that so far has failed to quell the violence and may be abandoned.
A vote is scheduled for 10 a.m. in New York.
With last-ditch diplomacy at work, there’s little hope that Russia, which twice has blocked measures against its Soviet-era ally, will bow to Western demands to increase pressure on Assad, according to three UN diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are private.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s aim to block measures that “mean direct support for the revolutionary movement.” Responding to the blasts, he told reporters in Moscow that “the UN has no business here.”
Russia has backed itself into a corner, and now its best option is to offer Assad asylum, according to George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator.
“Lavrov could not be clearer: Let events take their course,” said Lopez, who teaches at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, spoke yesterday on the phone and “noted the differences” in their approaches to Syria, according to a White House statement that highlighted the current stalemate.
With little sign of a breakthrough at the UN, Assad’s fate is being decided on the Syrian streets.
Rebel fighters, mostly armed with light weapons, have been pushing into the capital this week to battle government forces armed with tanks, artillery and attack helicopters.
The fighters are mostly led by Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of Syria’s population. Assad and many of his top officials come from the country’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that stands to lose privileges, property and even lives if his regime falls.
The Free Syrian Army, a loose collection of deserters and armed youths, claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack on Assad’s military leaders.
“The person who carried out the operation is in a safe place now, and he is a person very close to the regime,” Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera. “It was not a suicide mission, just explosives that were placed in a small room.”
The operation took place a day sooner than planned, he said.
Hours after the blast, Assad appointed Jassem al-Fraij as defense minister, state-run Syrian TV said. In brief remarks aired on Syrian TV, al-Fraij vowed to “cut the hand” of anyone who wants to harm the nation.
Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest cities, had until recently been spared the worst of the violence as the army shelled towns in mainly Sunni areas such as Homs and Hama.
The violence in Damascus is concentrated mostly on the outskirts of the city and is approaching the center. Some upper-income areas, such as Mazzeh where several embassies are located, also have seen sporadic clashes or gunfire. A few neighborhoods have been mostly calm, with restaurants still open and traffic jams during rush hour.
“Recent clashes in the capital reflect a major improvement in the military and intelligence capabilities of opposition forces, and are most likely to prove a prelude to broader political and military defections, particularly among the Sunni community,” said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst for the Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk.
They don’t signal the imminent collapse of the government, as “Assad’s Alawite-dominated elite forces remain coherent,” he said in an e-mailed comment.