Why Syria could get even uglier
July 19th, 2012
10:30 AM ET

Why Syria could get even uglier

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.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (312 Responses)
  1. deniz boro

    In most illnesses the patient suffers a very hot temperature before it breakes. We all witnissed it a shade too much in the past few years. It affected all countries including UK, France, even the Northern Europe.
    But this situation is getting to be more of a witches' brew. I wander if anyone knows what the outcome would be. Whoever started this all acted as a dumb sticking a stick into a hive of bees without taking necessary precoutions. Just like a baby pokind a stick. But this is one misdirected sticks too much. I wander who the mischief is. For I do not think he got it right.

    July 24, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  2. Bryan ..

    please read two reports .. http://infinitynewsnetwork.com/2012/07/23/syrians-are-humans-too/?utm_campaign=syrians-are-humans-too&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss


    July 25, 2012 at 2:24 am | Reply
  3. r.b..

    is THAT the BEST you GOT?,saeed

    July 25, 2012 at 7:16 am | Reply
  4. WiiiTruth

    Well, surprise surprise. Articles and blogs carefully and meticulously avoiding the elephant in the teashop on this issue – the arming and funding by the US & its gang of bandit friends. So OF COURSE, things are going to get uglier. Obama and Israel is going to make darn sure things get uglier. Nor is anyone even beginning to mention what the US would do to rebels in the case of an armed revolt. Just take a look at the baton-swinging, fist-swinging festival the cops had on peaceful – confirmed-unarmed demonstrators of the OWS protests. They'd have a field day if someone actually picked up arms. But Syria is supposed to sit down at the table of brotherly love with terrorists who have killed soldiers, government officials and civilians BY THE THOUSANDS. Writers of such plastic blogs don't seem to know this ... at least not by their own writings.

    July 25, 2012 at 8:08 am | Reply
    • KeepingThemHonest

      But we are not supplying them with arms. We send the weapons to Saudi Arabia and they give them to the opposition:) Our hands are clean, we are not sending them weapons:) Funny how CNN doesn't say anything about that little nugget. You also notice how they have not been given anti aircraft weapons to take down the helicopters? Who do you think made that decision? And why? Could it be because they believe they will end up shooting down civilian airliners at some point in the future? We have so much trust in these opposition fighters we support!

      July 25, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  5. dork hater

    Wow a middle easterner Who hates America I'm so surprised.

    July 25, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
  6. ClearBlueSky

    It interests me the vehemence that is generated here. It is as if we as citizens of the USA are going to bigot ourselves into supremecy. It also continues to show just how uncivilized our apparently superior country is. Perhaps we should all take a moment, step away from the keyboards, and reaffirm what it is we are about in this country; Equality and Acceptance.

    July 25, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • Nina

      What incenses me is your mirror image of islam as the biggest, most violent, most ignorant biggot of all.

      July 26, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
  7. KeepingThemHonest

    I did not know CNN could read the future. Perhaps they should start calling themselves the Nostradamus network. I seriously doubt Assad will fall regardless of the propaganda unless the west sends in military power. The idea though seems to be that if you say it enough it will become true. Keep telling everyone Assad will fall and you build the expectation. Funny how we're now on the side of the suicide bombers. Anyone else notice the attempts to make this out to be something akin to Star Wars? The "rebels" fighting the evil empire. It would be really nice to see some impartial reporting from CNN for a change. Why do they have to be so activist in their reporting??? I'm having to go to European and Asian media sources to get the whole story. So much for a free press. They seem to just run the press releases put out by "Syrian Activists" and the administration. You could just as easily call them the Syrian traitors as Syrian rebels. But rebels fits better with our own independence movement I guess and since CNN obviously has chosen a side they will use language that puts the opposition in the best light. It makes them seem more like us.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
    • Nina

      In Islam, the future is and always will be the total irradication of anything non-muslim through deceipt, lies, murder...

      July 26, 2012 at 9:44 am | Reply
  8. cb

    Hey Saeed! After you get done pumping the neighborhood goat and your little brother, come to the realization that all Muslims are as worthless as you and deserve nothing less than the business-end of my rifle.

    July 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  9. EchoEchoEcho


    Your rant is pathetic. I can't help but to laugh. LOL! To begin with, when did you become the "expert"? When you can answer that sufficiently then maybe I'll consider what spews out of your mouth.

    July 25, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
  10. American Citizen


    July 26, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  11. O'Larry

    I am still trying to figure out why Muslim sects hate each other so much and are willing to die killing one another .

    July 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  12. aen rabion

    So it's ok to rebel and blow up the legitimate government, as CNN (read world) sees it. Then It's ok also for the 'OCCUPY'ers in America to do so too. Dont you think? they will get international support? For the cause of the oppressed? Will that theory be accepted in USA? Have you been to Libya or Afghanistan lately? How much wonderful progress and democracy they are now in.. look at israhell for example..it throws every UN resolution in the trash can and get backed by the USA. So what good is the UN anyway.

    July 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  13. aen rabion

    keep on licking zionist's butthole.

    July 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  14. pelamun

    to avoid the increasing death toll, the government should immediately convene a general election . . . do not need shots clashing
    no more tears ang blood, . . no more suffering of children and women

    August 2, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
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  17. Muthu Mohanambal

    Syria's better go with peace talk!!!! just saying. 🙂

    September 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Reply
  18. In Home Personal Training

    We need to get the chemical weapons out of this country! Russia is funneling weapons and chaos into this country.This administration needs to remove these weapons.

    April 14, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Reply
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