Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to fight back against the biggest threat to his family’s four-decade rule is hampered by a wavering army and an enemy it can’t pin down.
Assad’s government yesterday vowed retribution for the Damascus blast that left Assef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and part of his inner circle of power, among the dead. It was the most direct strike against top officials since the revolt began in March last year, prompting speculation by political analysts that Assad’s days are numbered.
The threat to “decisively eliminate” the opposition recalled the military assault by Assad’s father, Hafez, on the city of Hama in 1982 to crush a Sunni Muslim-led rebellion against the Shiite-affiliated family’s rule. In the current uprising, violence hasn’t been confined to a single city, with clashes spreading to the capital in the past week. That means Bashar would need to rely on a larger and less unified military force to subdue it with similar tactics.
While Syria’s army looks powerful on paper, “the majority of the soldiers are Sunni and there is some evidence that when units go into battle they begin to fall apart,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly. “The question is, do they have enough reliable personnel to put down the rebellion, and the answer over the last few months seems to be no.”
Hafez al-Assad sent tanks and artillery to encircle Hama, known for its wooden waterwheels, and then bomb residential neighborhoods where support for the revolt was concentrated. At least 10,000 people were killed in less than a month of fighting, according to estimates cited by groups including Amnesty International. That compares with a death toll of about 17,000 in the uprising of the past 17 months, which has largely pitted majority Sunnis against a leadership class drawn from the Alawite minority.
Desertions from Syria’s armed forces had reached about 60,000 by March, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry estimate, as growing numbers refused to join the crackdown. Syria’s army had 295,000 active personnel, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2012 Military Balance.
Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in an interview with state television the Syrian army hasn’t used all its strength so far. “We can increase the army numbers to 4 million tomorrow with volunteers if we need to,” he said.
Yesterday’s bombing killed and wounded several senior officials in the inner circle of government. Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah and Shawkat, a high-ranking government official, died in the blast, according to state media. The explosion also injured other government officials, including the interior minister.
“This is a major blow,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There is a real risk now he will lash out and commit all his forces, and possibly all methods to snuff this out. Assad loyalists will try to survive by shooting their way out of it.”
Efforts by government forces and their supporters to crush the rebellion have failed to prevent the spread of fighting across the country. Rebel fighters, mostly armed with light weapons, have been pushing into the capital to battle government forces armed with tanks, artillery and attack helicopters.
The killings in the capital indicate the government may not be able to control the outcome of escalating warfare, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday.
‘Out of Control’
“By ignoring those appeals by the international community 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,” Panetta said.
Information Minister al-Zoubi said the fight with the rebels is a “decisive battle, not only in Damascus, but in all of Syria.”
About 4,300 members of the security forces have been killed since March last year, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group.
“History tells us these guys are going to fight to the last bullet,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at the Emirates University in Al Ain, said in a telephone interview from London.
Assad has seen several of his officials defect. Nawaf al-Fares, Syria’s former envoy to Iraq, joined the opposition earlier this month, saying the government had turned the ruling Baath party into “an instrument to kill people.” He was the first Syrian ambassador to abandon the government. About a week earlier, Syrian Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas, a Sunni Muslim, also defected.
The bombing yesterday may even be a reflection of internal divisions within the Syrian regime, said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Assad’s inner circle is trying to replicate his father’s success after Bashar was unable to do so,” he said in a phone interview.
“The defections are significant but it doesn’t mean the army is crumbling yet,” said Karasik. “We may need to start to speculate how the regime will try to protect itself by securing Damascus with soldiers from other countries.”
Russia has vowed to block a United Nations Security Council resolution threatening sanctions and military action against Syria. The latest developments prompted the UN's decision-making body to delay until today a vote on a Western draft seeking to increase pressure on Assad.
“Adopting this resolution would mean direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow yesterday. “If we are talking about revolution, the UN has no business here. Assad won’t quit and our Western partners don’t know what to do.”
Syria was an ally of the Soviet Union, receiving weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff with Israel for two decades after Hafez al-Assad took over the presidency following a 1970 coup. Russia still sells Syria weapons and has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian port of Tartus.
“The Russians have themselves a problem,” George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator who’s now at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said in a telephone interview. “They have backed themselves into a corner where they will be seen as having direct responsibility if he uses chemical weapons or unleashes more firepower from the air.”