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Boom in Damascus: Assad cleaning house?

How much damage was done to the Syrian regime by culling some dead wood from the top? Arguably, not much

The entire Syrian state security apparatus is designed first and foremost to protect and preserve the lives of Bashar Assad and his close family. Last week we were told that the shambolic and marginally competent Syrian opposition could penetrate to the very heart of this apparatus and kill people Bashar wanted alive. I don’t accept it, not without a lot of very good evidence.

The Assad regime has, since the beginning of Arab Spring, maintained a consistent counter-narrative: they are fighting terrorists. This narrative seeks to attack the insurgents’ international support by forcing us to confront the idea of helping Islamist terrorists.

In the West, this narrative has so far made little headway against the powerful democratization story of the Arab Spring.

There is another story coming from the US State Department and the UK Foreign Office: the story that the Assad regime is reeling in the face of the Free Syrian Army. Last week, those who spin that narrative tried to seize the moment of the most recent Damascus blast by claiming that Madame Assad had left the country and young Bashar was hunkered down in Latakia, possibly wounded.

That is, of course, part of the Arab Spring narrative. The dictator and his family flee the compromised capital. Only one more push is required to take the presidential palace and declare a provisional government. Aux barricades, les Syriens! Aux barricades!

When the bomb went off in Damascus, sellers of the Arab Spring narrative spun into high gear. Leon Panetta leapt in front of a microphone and talked as though Bashar were already smoking his last cigarette in front of a firing squad. The White House said that there was “real momentum” in favor of the insurgents. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted for the Security Council to come out with a Chapter Seven resolution, which is UN-speak for a UN license to make war on Assad. Hague is enough of a historian to know that without the enthusiastic support of Russia and China that will not happen. Kofi Annan, of course, said nothing of substance.

Absolutely nobody suggested that this was a failed attempt to get anyone else in the Syrian regime, that there had been any collateral damage, or that this was anything but a success for the insurgents.

But answer me this: If you were the Free Syrian Army, where would you find a suicide bomber?

Where do you find a suicide bomber in Damascus?

Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas cultivate their suicide bombers over a period of years. It is possible that the Syrian insurgents have been able to tap into existing cultural memes to fast-track motivated youngsters to fiery death, but if there are young Syrians ready for martyrdom, they’re only halfway there. How do you get that person into a secure facility to kill senior members of a paranoiac security-obsessed regime?

Although most news sources accepted the regime’s claims that the attack was by a suicide bomb last week, most have since accepted the Free Syrian Army’s claims that the attacks were remotely detonated. This presents its own problems for the bombers, forcing them to infiltrate a device, get out of the area and then remotely detonate in the face of Syrian electronic countermeasures. If they have this capability, where else are they demonstrating it? Where is the simultaneous set of attacks to decapitate the regime and take advantage of the result?

Israeli pundit Motti Kedar points out that the one video alleged to show the blast was prepared in advance and is clearly Islamist in origin. This is consistent with the idea of suicide bombing, possibly consistent with the Islamist group that claimed responsibility, but also suspiciously consistent with the Syrian state narrative.


Was the insurgency ready to exploit the blast? Apparently not – all they managed to do was take control of some border posts. The regime, on the other hand, was ready to send their shahiba militias into Sunni areas, including the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp. Does this prove that Assad ordered this killing? No, but it shows that the insurgents might not have been expecting this.

So I’m not convinced that the claims of the regime and the insurgents are solid. When I consider other hypotheses, some are more realistic.

What about the idea that Bashar Assad had people in his own regime killed? Could he be that murderous, cynical and ruthless?

Of course he could.

If Bashar wanted to have people killed by a suicide bomber he could ask the people at Hezbollah to provide one. Hezbollah has killed for the Syrians before, and they have used suicide bombers in the past. Recent bombings blamed by the regime on the opposition certainly show that somebody in Syria is blowing people up. Failed attempts at bombings seem to point to skilled irregular fighters. The videotape shot from 1,000 metres and distributed with Islamist messages would not be difficult for Hezbollah to provide.

Of course, Bashar wouldn’t need to use a real suicide bomber. He could have had the victims shot, and either used a bomb to fake the result or just lied about the bomb part or the suicide part. This would minimize the chances of accidentally hurting somebody Bashar actually liked or of damaging Syria’s operational capabilities.

Now, let’s look at the victims. First of all, they were all senior security officials who have spent the past year noticeably failing to grip the Syrian insurgency.

One Sunni, one Christian, one Shiite and one useless brother-in-law

Assef Shawkat was Bashar’s brother-in-law. He was deputy defense minister of Syria. He was also the subject of more than one attack by senior members of the Assad family. Bashar’s brother Basil had thrown him in prison, and he couldn’t marry Bashar’s sister until Basil was dead.  Bashar’s brother Maher shot him in the stomach. He has been held responsible by some for failing to protect Hezbollah’s operations chief Imad Mughniyeh from assassination. It is not difficult to imagine Shawkat as the Fredo Corleone of the Assad family.

Dawoud Rajiha, the defense minister, and the regime’s token Christian, was a professional soldier and technocrat, and not an ‘Alawi or a member of Assad’s Qalabiyya tribe, or his mother’s Haddad tribe, or a member of the Assad family.

Hassan Turkomani, the Ba’ath Central Committee member who happened to be a Sunni Muslim and ethnically Turkish, was likewise not an Arab, or an ‘Alawi or a Qalabiya, or a Haddad, or an Assad.

Hisham Ikhtiar, the Ba’ath Party disciplinarian and Hezbollah paymaster who happened to be a Shiite Muslim, was reportedly the person in charge of brutal suppression in Dera’a that turned the peaceful opposition into an armed insurgency. Not an ‘Alawi, not a Qalabiya, not a Haddad, not an Assad.

This bomb was amazing: it managed to kill four senior Syrian officials and wound one, without touching any Assads, clerks, typists, lavatory attendants, bodyguards or security guards.

Who was not touched by the explosion? Bashar’s brother Maher is safe. Bashar and Maher are Makhloufs on their mother’s side, and the Makhloufs are safe, including his cousins Rami Makhlouf and Hafez Mahlouf. Military Intelligence chief Ali Mamluk wasn’t hurt, nor his deputy Zuhair Hamad. Also safe were the head of the powerful Air Intelligence Jamil Hassan, head of political security Mohammed dib Zaitoun, Damascus military intelligence chief Rustum Ghazali and Bashar’s cousin and chief of security Dhu al-Himmah Shalish. None of the Assad cousins who run the Shabiha militia were hurt. That is, nobody really close to Assad died apart from Shawkat.

How much damage was done to the Syrian regime by culling some dead wood from the top? Arguably, not much.

Early reports of the bombing said that nobody in the neighborhood heard a blast or saw smoke. Later reports were illustrated with pictures of burned-out cars arranged by the regime. Only later still was a video released on the LiveLink web site by a pro-regime user.

Remarkably little evidence has been produced to support either the regime’s story or the insurgents’.  What is clear, however, is that a week later Bashar Assad still seems to be firmly in control of Syria. With due respect to His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan, this was not a tremendous blow to the regime.

The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility. Riyad al-Assad of the Free Syrian Army also claimed that Bashar himself had been wounded and had left Damascus. Not that I have anything against Riyad al-Assad as a human being, but as the nominal leader of a shambolic insurgency he has every incentive to claim that he managed to get a bomb into the center of Syrian power last Wednesday — whether or not he did it. It is worth noting that this is not the first time the Syrian insurgents have claimed responsibility for killing all four who died in the blast — they claimed in May to have poisoned them. In making the more recent claim, Riyad also said it wasn’t a suicide bombing. Evidence to support Riyad’s claims have not been forthcoming.

A Facebook account called Liwa al-Islam also claimed responsibility, and also said that it hadn’t been a suicide attack. Their spokesman, using the not-entirely-original nom du guerre Abu Ammar, said they’d been planning the attack for all of a month. No proof of their claim has been forthcoming.

Distinct from last year’s nonviolent opposition, there is no clear sign of mass support for these groups in Syria. Of course, for many Syrians overthrowing the Assads has to be viewed as the fastest way to turn Syria into another Iraq. Saddam Hussein may have been a bastard worth overthrowing, and he may have made the people of Iraq live in fear of his sons’ deadly caprices, but post-Saddam Iraq wasn’t good for anybody in the region. Even for non-‘Alawites in Syria the devil you know has to be better than living in a Syria without working sewers and with the copper wire looted from the telephone poles.

And then there’s the idea of living in an Islamist paradise. One narrative that William Hague and Hillary Clinton don’t bring in much is the idea that the Syrian opposition includes an Islamist element. For Syrians who grew up in a secular Ba’athist world, the prospect of hiding the drinks cupboard and wearing religious hats can’t be attractive.

One of the last century’s most skilled insurgents, Mao Zedong, advised his people to devote a phase of their revolutionary war to building credibility. To Mao this meant not only showing their potency by attacking the authorities successfully, but also showing the insurgents’ credibility as a replacement. So far the Syrian insurgents have shown their ability to get Assad to rain fiery hell on their neighbors, and their ability to claim responsibility for a bombing. Can they collect the rubbish every week?Can they bring peace, order and good government to Syria and defend the people from the ravening hordes of Zionists? The people of Syria seem unconvinced.

Without massive assistance, insurgency is a slow, painstaking business. The quick victory of the Libyan insurgents (loaned naval, air force and special forces assets by NATO) over the friendless Ghaddafi created a false promise that dictators can be easily toppled. The Assads deserve to go, but empty threats and pious wishes won’t make it so.

The Arab Spring narrative was promising, but for Syria it was a broken promise. The Assad narrative of gamely fighting Western-supported Islamist terrorists isn’t much better, but for a dictator who promises stability and prosperity against chaos and Islamism that narrative is enough to keep him in power and killing.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.