Syria: The end of the beginning?

Paul Mutter sends in a round-up of today's momentous news from Syria.

The "Free Syrian Army" has claimed responsibility for a stunning attack on the Assad regime's inner circle in Damascus. The heretofore unknown organization "Liwa al-Islam" claimed one of its suicide bombers had been responsible, but spokespeople from the FSA countered that they had infiltrated the secure compound where the meeting was held month prior to today and planted bombs there with this meeting in mind. The regime asserts that it was a suicide bombing by "hireling tools that are implementing foreign plots."

Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat were reportedly killed, along with one of Assad's top aides. Former Defense Minister Hasan Turkmani was also reportedly killed. Hisham Bekhtyar, head of the General Security Directorate, and the Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar were said to be injured as well (rumors additional top officials' deaths are swirling around, as are ones that Bashar al-Assad himself was caught in the blast).

What the regime must be really worried about now is that if members of the FSA did carry out the attack as they claim, then it strongly suggests that there were defectors inside the regime's inner circle who made the bombing happen. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FSA is claiming unnamed members of the Republican Guard Division as accomplices (the Guard is led by Assad's brother, Maher).

Assad's clique is no stranger to such internal paranoia - they came to power in a coup, the Muslim Brotherhood targeted Ba'athist Party members in the 70s and 80s, and Bashar's father stood down an abortive 1984 coup by his brother Rifaat - but the increase in ranking defections this summer, most notably of Manaf Tlass, a general whose father was Syria's Defense Minister from 1972 to 2002. He is now believed to be hiding in France after defecting earlier this month.

This attack is significant from the rebels' and the regime's perspective because of the casualty list and where it occurred. The message is that Assad's inner circle is not safe, and that inner circle is what keeps Assad himself in power (of course, larger factors, like "Alawite preference" and Russian backing, keep the inner circle in power).

Rula Amin of Al Jazeera reports that there is "[a]nxiety in Damascus as people anticipate a strong govt reaction against the armed rebels on the ground." Syrian activists report that heavy weapons and Alawite militias have been deployed inside Damascus, and that the Syrian Army is withdrawing forces from the Golan to reinforce Damascus. Demonstrations are taking place in Damascene neighborhoods, as are firefights, and access in and out of the city has reportedly been severely restricted.

There is indeed reason to fear that this attack will lead to reprisals. In the regime's collective mind, this simply cannot go unanswered. A major new military push against the rebels, if it occurred, could be damaging to them if in their recent push towards Damascus they are stretching their forces too thin.

A reoccupation of areas outside Damascus by the Syrian Army and the paramilitary shabbiha would harm the rebels in the short term, and be deadly for civilians judged to have been helping the rebels. But if they are able to continue holding their gains, such heavy-handedness will benefit the armed opposition in the same way that the depredations of anti-partisan brigades in other wars have undermined an occupying army's position. Even if the partisans' movement among the civilian population brings down the hammer on noncombatants, it is precisely because the violence of the "counterinsurgency" strategy pursued - in the Syrian village of Tremesh, for instance - that the partisans' legitimacy grows in these communities.

Eventually, when such forces become strong enough, it is possible that they can hold back the anti-partisan brigades and protect their operational areas better - in Syria's case, especially so if defections increase. If this were to happen on a wider scale following the assassinations and fighting in Damascus, the regime would be severely embarrassed. What the regime would do then is difficult to determine. There is talk of a regime retreat to the coastal plain if the army becomes too strained to hold onto the Sunni-dominated inland. Others hope that a decisive moment is coming in Damascus, while less optimistic observers believe this is not a turning point but another indicator that Syria is in for a long, ever-worsening internal conflict along the lines of the 1976-82 conflict.