Rumors to the contrary aside, it seems Syrian President Bashar Assad did not abandon Damascus on Thursday. One day after opposition forces killed half of his top defense officials in a bomb blast, Assad hastened to appoint replacements. But with the ongoing battles in Damascus gradually turning into a battle for the capital, Assad clearly senses danger approaching for himself and his family.
Thus it seems the day is not far off when he will feel compelled to relocate to his palace in Latakia, in northern Syria - or even seek asylum outside the country.
The weekend - coinciding as it does with start of Ramadan - is likely to be a stormy one in Syria. Fierce fighting has driven the crowds from the streets in several major cities, and Wednesday's assassination of those senior defense officials has accelerated talk of the day after Assad. The New York Times reported this week that Pentagon officials and their Israeli counterparts recently discussed plans for a joint operation to seize or destroy Assad's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons if his regime falls.
Various reports say Washington also discussed this issue with Amman. King Abdullah of Jordan even said this week that it might be necessary to cross the border - presumably into Syria - to prevent these weapons from falling into irresponsible hands.
From Israel's perspective, it's hard to know which would be worse: an attack by radical Sunni opposition fighters on one of the bases where these weapons are stored, or their deliberate transfer by Assad to his Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. A rare appearance by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah after Wednesday's bombing in Damascus indicates that Hezbollah, too, is worried about the future of the Assad regime.
The deteriorating situation in Syria has led Israel to take various precautions. Intelligence monitoring of Syria has been stepped up, and the alert level of forces in the north has been raised. Some units had their weekend leaves canceled, and the Israel Defense Forces General Staff initially considered canceling leaves for even more soldiers. But after word leaked to the media and sparked an outcry, they scaled back the cancelations.
The prevailing assumption, both in Israel and other Western countries, is that given the setbacks it has suffered recently, Assad's regime cannot survive for long. The problem, said a senior Israeli defense official, is not just that such downfalls are almost possible to predict, but that intelligence agencies for years have focused mainly on what is happening within the Syrian regime - and in this case, the regime itself has no idea when it will fall.
The ones who might know more are the Russians. Thus, in addition to tracking Assad's stockpiles of nonconventional weapons, intelligence agencies worldwide are tracking the movements of the thousands of Russian experts in Syria: Just as it did on the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the hasty departure of the Russians might herald a worsening of the crisis.
Last week, Russian sources claimed that none of the Russian experts still in Syria were working with the Syrian army. If so, the question is where did they go - and who, for instance, is now maintaining Syrian Intelligence's listening posts.
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