By David Lesch, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David W. Lesch is professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and author or editor of 12 books, including the upcoming “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.” The views expressed are solely those of the author.
The past couple of weeks haven’t been good to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. First, his long-time friend and presumed regime insider, General Manaf Tlas, defected. This was followed soon after by the defection of the Syrian ambassador to Iraq. In the past week it has been reported that a number of high-ranking Syrian military officers defected to the Syrian opposition, perhaps taking their cue from Tlas. Finally, on July 18, a massive bomb exploded in a national security compound in Damascus, killing an unspecified number of Syrian security personnel, including the defense minister and the deputy defense minister, the latter being Assaf Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law.
These were certainly serious body blows to the regime. Taken in and of themselves they aren’t necessarily fatal blows to the regime, especially since Tlas’ and reportedly even Shawkat’s access to the inner sanctums of the decision making apparatus weren’t what they once were. Nonetheless, oftentimes perception is more important than reality. And the perception is that two long-time stalwarts of the regime, one (Tlas) from a family that more than any other has been associated over the decades with propping up the Assads, both father and son, and the other (Shawkat) a relative to al-Assad by marriage who had been the head of military intelligence in Syria and for years the most feared person in the country, are now gone. Because of this, it appears that the regime might be on the verge of imploding. The fact that the bomb apparently was planted inside a high security complex that played host to a national security meeting had to send shockwaves throughout the regime. How can anyone feel safe at this point? Are there moles in the inner sanctums of the regime that planted the bomb? In other words, a regime that was already paranoid about pernicious unseen forces arrayed against it just became that much more unsure of who its friends and enemies are.
There’s also the perception that the opposition armed forces are getting better at striking at the heart of the regime. It’s clear that their shift in tactics from trying to take and hold parts of cities, which failed miserably against superior government forces – so dramatically revealed in Homs earlier in the year – toward adopting guerrilla warfare has been much more effective at wearing down government forces and striking devastating psychological blows at the regime. The tactical support, arms, funding, and training opposition forces are receiving directly and indirectly from an array of anti-Assad countries appear to have finally paid some dividends.
Al-Assad could claim for a long time during the uprising that the violence was relegated to the rural areas and select cities; the two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, were relatively safe and secure. This is no longer the case. As a result, many of those Syrian fence-sitters, who supported the regime not because of any predilection for al-Assad but for the lack of any viable alternative, may now think twice about whether or not to stick it out with the regime. With the perception that there is no place to go, that the regime is on the defensive and that the opposition is making important military inroads, high-level Syrian officials may think hard about defecting, following the path set out by Tlas and others. If this is the case, as often happens, what follows is a cascade of defections that undermines the foundation of a regime.
The question now is how the Syrian regime will react to the bombing. Will al-Assad see the end of the tunnel for his regime and more vigorously pursue a diplomatic resolution that leads to a transition of power, although he would do so from a perceived position of weakness? Or will he – and his military-security advisors – lash out in a violent fashion to show that he’s still powerful, in control, and capable of withstanding the heat? If recent history is a guide, he will unfortunately choose the latter option. If this is the case, the regime’s attempts thus far at calibrated bloodletting, i.e. enough of a crackdown to suppress the rebellion but not enough to galvanize the international community into action, may be difficult. Certainly there will be those in the regime, maybe even loyalists of Shawkat in the security services, who figure the gloves are off. They may find evidence as to who carried out the assassinations, where their home villages are, and then take to wiping them out. Vengeance in the Middle East is often gruesome and convulsive. In an election year, the United States will most likely continue to wade along the sidelines regardless; besides, it likes what it sees in terms of the perceived weakening of a regime that may be on its last legs, so why change course.
Welcome to the next ugly phase of the Syrian uprising, where violence becomes more indiscriminate than it already has been. Both sides believe it is an existential conflict. And if this is the tipping point for the al-Assad regime, what will it do to desperately hang on? Then there’s still a whole other set of questions regarding what will follow after al-Assad falls – and he will fall. The serious fault lines that divide the opposition might ultimately make the post-Assad environment equally rich in blood, at least until one party wins and imposes its vision for Syria’s future. One can only hope that the last reeds of a relatively peaceful transition are grasped through diplomacy, compelling the Russians – Vladimir Putin – to realize that they’ve wedded themselves to a sinking ship and have one last opportunity to leverage their influence toward a resolution of the problem with rather than against the international community. Perhaps a fanciful wish at this point, but the alternative is more of what we have just witnessed.