A precise, painful strike at the Assad regime's inner sanctum
The killing of senior officials at the National Security command center in Damascus might eventually be seen as the turning point in the civil war.
The assassination of Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Abdallah Rajha and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat in an explosion Wednesday afternoon in Damascus appears to be the most significant achievement of the Syrian opposition in their struggle to bring down Bashar Assad's regime.
The horrific massacres carried out by Assad's forces against the civilian opposing the regime, from Dara'a to Homs, have helped the international community to be fed up with Assad, however it did little to actually remove him from power.
The rebels' success in striking a senior regime official, in the heart of the Syria capital, points out Assad's increasing inability to control events in the country. It is not inconceivable that the attack will later be seen as the turning point in the battle against the Alawi regime.
The suicide attack followed four days of constant battles in Damascus itself. In these battles, armed opposition members seemed much better equipped and organized than in the past. The assassination of the defense minister - despite the tight ring of security the regime has built around its leaders - testifies to their daring, high level of execution and intelligence capabilities.
The opposition penetrated Assad's inner sanctum – the national security command post in Damascus, just as the highest echelons of Syria's defense establishment convened. According to initial reports whose reliability is uncertain, the terrorist who set off the charge was himself a member of the security forces. The opposition claims that it was a joint operation, including an entire elite unit that was involved in the mission.
This operation was not the first of its kind. Two months ago there was a failed attempt to poison numerous high-ranking members of the regime attending a dinner at the home of a senior government official.
Until now, Western observers have complained about the Syrian opposition's apparent lack of organization and initiative. The past few days demonstrate that it is more determined, and more lethal, than in the past.
In the absence of overt European or American intervention alongside of the rebels, and when Russia has not yet repudiated Assad, it would seem that some other party – Turkey? an Arab state? – had recently upgraded military and intelligence aid to Assad's opponents.
Today's assassination is the latest in a long series of blows suffered by Assad in the past weeks; above all is the substantial rise in defections from the army, and the high-ranking army officers and administration officials who are abandoning his camp of supporters.
From an Israeli perspective, events of the past few days in Syria require the reinforcement and continuance of the current policy: maximum preparedness, minimum intervention. Assad has made no attempt, up until now, to divert the fire running wild through Syria toward Israel. However, the Syrian ambassador in Baghdad, himself a recent defector, suggested Tuesday that Assad, under pressure, might deploy chemical weapons he is known to possess against his opponents.
The escalation of the Syrian conflict is likely to drift into unpredictable developments, while the main Israeli and Western concern focuses on Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons and long-range missiles. These weapons might fall into the wrong hands, be it Hezbollah, or extremist Sunni groups inspired by Al-Qaida. In the past few months Iranian-Hezbollah involvement in support of Assad has become more obvious and blunt.
Under extreme circumstances, the situation may provide fertile ground for desperate last-minute measures. Right now (on the afternoon of July 18) the Israeli security and intelligence top officials are meeting as they form a new security assessment. Intelligence coverage on Syria is of high significance in the eyes of Israeli intelligence.
On Tuesday, Military Intelligence chief Brig.-Gen. Amir Kochavi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the fall of Assad would take “between two months and two years. But don't hold me to my words.” It remains to be seen if Kochavi was accurate, or whether he was overly cautious.
Israel is most certainly troubled by one more point: If the Syrian regime does indeed collapse in the near future, most of the international community's attention will be shifted to what is happening there and to efforts to stabilize an alternative regime in Damascus. This will come, almost certainty, at the expense of steps to ramp up the pressure to stop Iran's nuclear program.
On Wednesday morning we wrote that the ground is shaking under Assad's feet. As of this afternoon, the Syrian president's situation is even more complicated and difficult. But though it appears that Assad is on his way out, it's still too early to set a timetable for his regime's final collapse.