by Jonathan Spyer
For most of the past 16 months, the insurgency against the regime of President Bashar Assad has been confined to certain specific areas of the country. Assad has also managed to keep the top levels of his own elite intact, and largely loyal.
The regime has done its utmost to preserve this situation, and above all to maintain quiet in the two largest cities of the country, the capital Damascus, and Aleppo.
But the regime has failed.
The clashes in Damascus this week, the growing stream of defections and yesterday’s bomb attack on the National Security Building in the capital, set the seal on the failure. The deaths of Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha, Assad’s brother-in- law Assef Shawkat and former chief of staff Hassan Turkmani in a bomb attack on a meeting of senior officials in Damascus exemplify the sharp erosion in the regime’s position in recent weeks.
The intelligence required for such an operation indicates that individuals close to the Assad regime’s inner sanctum are now providing information to its enemies. However, observation of the fighting in Damascus suggests the latest developments do not yet represent the climactic battle for the control of Syria.
The trend of events in the Syrian civil war is clear. Assad’s power and options are dwindling; those of the rebels are growing.
But the dictator is not yet finished.
While the outbreak of fighting in Damascus this week appeared to erupt out of nowhere, this was not the case. That misleading impression derives from the inadequacy of media coverage because of restrictions imposed by the regime. In reality, the security situation in Damascus has been deteriorating for some time.
Rebels fought government forces in the Kfar Soussa district in mid-June. These clashes were seen by many Damascus residents as the writing on the wall.
A large number of middle- and upper-middle-class Syrians have left the city over the past months. The overt security presence on the streets of the capital has sharply increased.
The immediate cause of the fighting this week, meanwhile, was a regime initiative, rather than one undertaken by the Free Syrian Army. The government wanted to drive out FSA fighters from a number of Damascus neighborhoods. It therefore began the shelling of the Tadamon area, close to downtown Damascus, as a first step.
The rebels fought back, challenging government armor, and the fighting spread to a number of other areas, most notably the Midan district.
The FSA rushed large numbers of fighters toward the capital, to take advantage of the breakdown of order in the city. The decision by the regime to abandon the last pretenses of normality, in order to try to prevent the erosion of its position in Damascus, is testimony to its increasingly beleaguered position.
Still, opposition fighters confirmed that despite the public proclamations, the FSA sees the current clashes in the city as a test of strength between the sides, rather than the final, climactic confrontation.
Two things should be noted regarding the latest events: First, the steeply improved performance of the rebels over the last three months is the result of increased aid to the FSA and other elements from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. There are credible claims of US intelligence involvement in this process, and less clear rumors of involvement of Western special forces in the training of the rebels.
The improved capabilities of the rebels are being felt in the realities of the combat on the ground. They are now inflicting a steady toll on the government forces, averaging 150 killed and wounded daily. It also looks likely that the FSA was responsible for the bomb attack in Damascus.
Second, the pattern of regime activity suggests that Assad does not believe the battle will be decided in Damascus. Rather, the regime is currently engaged in a process of ethnic cleansing in the north-west of the country.
It is trying to carve out an area of purely Alawite population west of Homs and Hama cities.
The recent massacres in Tremseh and Houla appear to constitute elements of this plan.
Once this Alawite enclave is achieved, it will then form the baseline for further conflict between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria.
As Assad’s forces lose control of increasing parts of the country, they are attempting to consolidate their position in the areas still under their power, including the capital. They are doing so by all available means, including helicopter gunships and artillery fire on civilian neighborhoods. The pretense of normality is a luxury the regime can no longer afford.
So the outbreak of fighting in Damascus and the attack on Assad’s inner sanctum represent an important turning point in the Syrian civil war.
The rebels are winning. But the latest events do not yet herald the beginning of the regime’s last stand.
That moment has not yet arrived. When it does, it may well not take place in Damascus.
This article was also published in the Jerusalem Post.Jonathan Spyer
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