The question that must now stalk Bashar al-Assad’s mind day and night is: who can I trust?
The metaphor of regimes being toppled is often misleading since the fatal blow is just as likely to come from the inside as the outside.
The tight inner circle dedicated to Assad’s survival just got even smaller today with the deaths of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat who were killed in a suicide attack. But if Reuters is correct in reporting that the attacker was himself a bodyguard for the core members of the regime, the survivors have been reminded that they may have less to fear from armed rebels in the streets of Damascus than they do from those who stand at their sides.
[Update: A tweet from @fsa_hq_syria says: “the bomb was inside a water cooler in the room which was packed with 25 top thugs and was remote detonated from a distance”]
As fighting continues in the Syrian capital, Tony Karon writes:
By forcing the regime to use armor and artillery in the capital, the rebels have sent a message to the regime’s key support bases that Assad has lost control of much of the country and that his promises to crush the rebellion ring hollow. “Once the fighting gets into the key cities, the advantage passes from the military to the insurgents,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “As long as the fighting is confined to villages and small towns, those can be surrounded and pounded into submission with artillery fire. You can’t do that in a city of 5 million people. Your heavy weapons become meaningless, because you can’t destroy Damascus — and so, the city’s Sunni neighborhoods become a sea in which the rebels can swim and multiply.”
By some accounts, the military during the past three days ordered whole neighborhoods in the capital to evacuate their homes in order to clear the rebels from Sunni areas. Not only do such actions confirm to the citizenry that the regime faces a popular insurrection rather than simply a terrorism problem, as its propagandists claim; they also build resentment against the security forces and create an even more permissive environment for the insurgents. “But if the regime can’t drive the rebels out of the capital,” Landis notes, “the regime is finished.”
Last month, Assad, providing a glimpse into his psychopathically delusional mindset, likened his relationship with Syria to that of a surgeon. With the country as his patient, it was inevitable that his hands would get covered in blood as he attempted to save its life. This is not the imagery that would be employed by anyone who ever needed to win an election.
Even if we are long familiar with military officials using the twisted euphemism of “surgical strikes”, there is I think something even more macabre about a president who claims he must slice open his nation for the good of its health.
Now, as Assad’s inner circle gets even smaller, his ability to make rational decisions will almost certainly be lost.
As fighting rages in Damascus, and the Assad family that has ruled Syria for four decades struggles for its life against a growing rebellion, a picture is emerging of a tight inner group determined to fight its way out of the crisis, even as support for the government falls away.
At its head is President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000 and who friend and opponent alike say appears increasingly detached from reality, convinced he is fighting a conspiracy against him and Syria.
Around him is a tight circle of family and clan members, and a security establishment staffed mainly by adherents of the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong, a branch of Shi’ite Islam in a country that is three quarters Sunni.
“Even those who love him feel he can no longer provide security,” said Ayman Abdel-Nour, an adviser to Assad until 2007 and now an opposition figure. “They think he is useless and living in a cocoon.”
“He thinks of himself as God’s messenger to rule Syria. He listens to the sycophants around him who tell him ‘you are a gift from God’. He believes that he is right and that whoever contradicts him is a traitor. Many of his close friends and advisers have either left him or distanced themselves from him.”
In response, Assad has taken charge of a military crisis unit and takes all the daily decisions, from the deployment of army units to tasks assigned to the security services, as well as mobilization of the Alawite Shabbiha, the feared militia accused of a series of massacres in the past two months.
“Bashar remains the centre. He is involved in the day-to-day details of managing the crisis,” said a Lebanese politician close to the Syrian rulers. “He set up an elite unit led by him to manage the crisis daily.”
In this unit, intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar is responsible for security coordination, Dawoud Rajha is minister of defense, Assef Shawkat, the president’s powerful brother-in-law, is deputy chief of staff of the armed forces. Alongside them are Ali Mamlouk, special adviser on security, Abdel-Fattah Qudsiyeh, head of military intelligence, and Mohammad Nassif Kheyrbek, a veteran operator from the era of Assad’s father.
Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and Syria’s second most powerful man, commands the main loyalist strike forces.
“Maher is directly involved in the confrontation on the ground and is in direct contact with every one of them. He has direct military responsibilities,” the Lebanese politician said.
While there has been no shake-up in the leadership, its inner circle is beginning to realize it faces a serious crisis. “In the hierarchy of the authorities you don’t see a noticeable change”, he said. But “you hear more realistic language. The prestige and standing of the regime has been scratched”.
Abdel-Nour, the former Assad adviser, paints a darker picture of the inner circle. He stresses that there is nothing autonomous about the way government units operate, whether the shelling of opposition neighborhoods by Maher’s armored columns or the killing of villagers by the Shabbiha militia. All units are under Bashar’s command and many have family ties.
Each region has its own Shabbiha leader and many of the central cities are led by Shabbiha men related to Assad.
The 46-year-old Assad said last month that Syria was at war and ordered his government to spare no effort in pursuit of victory against rebels he has described as terrorists.
Drawing parallels with his earlier profession as an eye surgeon, he said: “When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound do we say to him: ‘Your hands are covered in blood’?”
“Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”