Syria's Assad Needs Loyal Officers More Than Strategists

More than dealing a military blow to Assad, the assassination of senior defense officials, all members of Assad's Committee for Managing the Crisis, was a blow to the regime's morale.

"We'll cut off the hands of anyone who even thinks about harming Syria's national security," Syria's army headquarters declared Wednesday. Shortly afterward, President Bashar Assad's office announced that Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij would be appointed defense minister and vice president in place of the assassinated Gen. Daoud Rajha.

These announcements, coupled with the massive firing on Syrian cities, were meant to demonstrate the regime's rapid recovery from the bombing that killed several top defense officials.

The attack still left the regime with a solid core of key army and intelligence officers. First and foremost is the strongman who makes all decisions not made by Assad himself: his brother Maher.

Maher is in charge of planning and waging the war against the opposition, aided by dozens of generals who remain loyal to the regime. Assad also still controls the armored corps, few of whose officers have deserted, and the air force hasn't yet been brought fully into play.

Thus more than dealing a military blow to Assad, the assassination of these senior defense officials, all members of Assad's Committee for Managing the Crisis, was a blow to the regime's morale. It attested to a major intelligence failure, shattering the myth that Syrian intelligence has complete control over what is happening under its nose. It also revealed a turncoat in the regime's inner circle, attesting to the opposition's intelligence and operational capabilities.

The crisis management committee, comprised of eight senior army and intelligence officers, isn't monolithic: Its members have deep differences of opinion, personal rivalries and even operational rivalries that have impeded the war on opposition forces.

For instance, the enmity between Maher Assad and Assef Shawkat, his brother-in-law and one of the leaders killed in yesterday's bombing, was well-known. Shawkat, the deputy defense minister, has been suspected of responsibility for terror attacks against regime opponents overseas, and some believe he was involved in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

There were also deep differences between Shawkat and Rajha, the slain defense minister. The latter was responsible for the brutal military crackdown on the opposition. But many officers opposed his methods and ended up in jail or house arrest. One of those was Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass - son of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass - who recently defected to France.

But perhaps the most important person killed in the bombing - whose perpetrator is still uncertain, since both the Free Syrian Army and a group called the Islam Brigades are claiming credit - was Gen. Hassan Turkmani, 77, who headed the crisis management committee.

Turkmani served as an unofficial foreign minister: He fostered Syria's relations with Turkey and pushed a policy that called for agreeing to negotiate with Israel but refusing to commit to normalization if a deal were signed.

Turkmani was apparently the person closest to Bashar Assad outside his own family, as well as one of Syria's leading strategists. But in Syria's current crisis, Assad needs loyal field officers more than he needs strategists. The divisions at the top have been affecting the army's operations on the ground, resulting in a lack of coordination and a failure to share intelligence among units whose commanders are loyal to different members of the committee.

The dilemma the regime faces now, in the wake of the bombing, is not who will fill the committee's depleted ranks, but who will remain loyal rather than fearing for his life.

It seems that Bashar and his brother Maher are now in the same situation as Muammar Gadhafi was during the military campaign to unseat him. In Libya, thousands of officers and tens of thousands of soldiers deserted to set up an army vastly bigger than the Free Syrian Army is now. Nevertheless, Gadhafi chose to fight to the end, even after NATO entered the fray.

Assad has benefited from a Russian umbrella in the UN Security Council that has kept Western forces from attacking, and this is expected to continue, for now.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's statement that "Assad won't be ousted by force" gives him breathing room to decide whether to adopt a scorched-earth policy involving massive air strikes and tank assaults on rebellious cities, or to begin planning a retreat that would at least ensure his and his family's future. Yesterday's reports that the Syrian air force was bombing targets in the Damascus suburbs may indicate that Assad has decided on the former.

That presents the Western powers with a dilemma of their own: Is now the time for military intervention, or is it better to let the parties continue fighting now that the Free Syrian Army is demonstrating improved operational capabilities?

Thus the attack that killed those top defense officials may end up postponing international intervention - if Iran and Hezbollah don't stir up trouble elsewhere in the region.