BEIRUT – No one really saw this coming. That is, no one except for the handful of Syrian rebels who executed the startling July 18 bombing in Damascus that claimed the lives of Syria’s top intelligence and security officials. But the shockwaves of this assassination have already reverberated across the Middle East, leading political players of all stripes to contemplate the possibility of President Bashar al-Assad’s imminent demise.
Confirmed dead in the explosion, which Syrian state media blames on a suicide bomber but Free Syrian Army officials insist was caused by a remote-detonated device, are Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; his “deputy” Asef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in law and one of the regime’s most feared strongmen; and Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani, a former Defense Minister.
After more than a year of being shelled by the regime’s well-equipped military and terrorized by gangs of pro-regime military thugs, the Syrian rebels’ attack was the equivalent of blowing up the Death Star: They not only decapitated the Assad regime’s top security officials, they sent a message that they could reach anyone — and any part of the country. Even if the belief that Assad could fall any day is overblown (and with such limited access inside Syria it’s impossible to know for sure) — it is clear that his hold on power is shakier than ever.
Syrian state media’s account of the attack focused on the “martyrdom” of Rajiha, but Shawkat — who only merited a single line in that same announcement — is the real story here. The defense minister, who hailed from the Greek Orthodox community, was widely considered an affirmative action hire — someone meant to keep Syria’s Christian minority on the side of the regime. Shawkat, on the other hand, is a true insider. He has run Syria’s feared military intelligence services, which is probably the only institution still trusted on any level by loyalists, and was in charge during the last gasps of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. He also often acted as a regime fireman, parachuting into trouble areas to quell dissent. Despite much resistance from some members of the Assad family to his marriage, Shawkat regularly amazed Syria observers with his ability to navigate the opaque power struggles and often-deadly intrigue that comes part and parcel with the Assad family dictatorship.
Syria’s rebels responded with unrestrained glee, filming celebrations around Syria for YouTube and fielding phone calls from journalists in Lebanese safe houses, where they openly expressed pride in the operation. The real prize was Shawkat: Rebel officials tell FP that despite his sometimes rocky history with his in-laws — it’s rumored that Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, once shot him during a family meal — Shawkat’s dedication to the regime once again made him an indispensible and trusted enforcer at a time when the Assad clan has seen key allies abandon them.
“Shawkat and Maher have been in charge of crushing the revolution,” said a Free Syrian Army official in Lebanon who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmad. “They can’t trust the Sunnis in the army after thousands of defections and this regime always turns to its own blood when it is time to protect the regime.”
It’s not only the assassination that is bolstering the Syrian opposition’s morale. The rebels have also sustained four days of fighting in the capital, which had previously seen only limited clashes and smaller demonstrations as the rest of Syria descended into civil war. Furthermore, in numerous meetings with anti-regime fighters in Lebanon over the past several months, it has become abundantly clear that new financing and equipment have reached the once shabby rebel army units.
“This regime is so rotten that even their own supporters sell us weapons,” one rebel commander in a village along the border with Lebanon told me. “We never needed weapons from outside countries like America or Saudi — we needed money. Syria has plenty of weapons already and these guys are so corrupt that they profit by selling us the weapons we will later use to kill them.”
“Now we have money,” he concluded, before demurring about the source of the generosity.
Across the border in Lebanon, which rightfully watches events unfold in Syria like its future could depend on the outcome, reaction to the assassination depended on one’s political loyalties.
Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a conservative Sunni cleric currently engaged in a political standoff in the Lebanese city of Sidon with Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies, has emerged in the last month as a key critic of the Lebanese government’s neutrality on the Syria question. In a wide-ranging interview, I asked the cleric — whom critics have painted as an al Qaeda-style radical — about his feelings towards the Syrian revolution next door.
“The Syrian regime will fall,” he said. “And it will have an impact in Lebanon, but I doubt Hezbollah will resort to violence over it. I expect they will push out politically to protect themselves from the loss of their allies in Damascus. But, God willing, we will not see sectarian violence.”
Assir may be right — but as he well knows, there are no guarantees. The revolt in Syria has already been felt on multiple levels in Beirut, notably leading to street clashes in May. The Assad regime’s brutal crackdown has exacerbated sectarian tensions between the pro-Assad parties that dominate the Shiite community and Lebanese Sunnis who have long resented Syria’s domination of Lebanon. Assir himself has made waves in the Lebanese media by directly criticizing Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, which most Lebanese hesitate to do out of respect, fear, or both. Several weeks ago, supporters of Nasrallah attacked a local television station for daring to broadcast an interview with Assir in which he directly challenged both Nasrallah and his Shiite ally Nabih Berrih, who heads the Amal Movement.
Assir worries that the Alawite-dominated Syrian government’s efforts to cling to power will only further radicalize its Sunni opponents.
“Now as we see the regime ready to fall, I worry that the Alawites will be persecuted over personal vendettas,” he said. “I speak with many leaders of the Syrian revolution and they do not want this. They have moderate minds and do not hate a group, only the regime. But even they admit that so much violence has made this a personal war and they might not be able to stop the Alawites from great suffering once the regime falls. I hope this does not happen, but I fear it is too late to stop it.”
Assad’s allies in Lebanon, however, are not about to concede defeat. An hour and a half after my interview with Assir, back in Beirut, my car stopped to pick up several supporters and members of Hezbollah. Nasrallah has consistently argued for the survival of the Assad regime, which he describes as a great friend to Hezbollah — and he did it again in a speech Wednesday night, praising the assassinated Syrian officials and hailing the Syrian government as “a real military supporter of the resistance.”
An argument immediately broke out between the four men as they entered the car about the implications of the news of the bombing. One cadre member I have known for years was arguing that the regime was finished and that Hezbollah had a contingency plan, while his friends — supporters but not official members of the group — seemed skeptical.
“How could they have killed Shawkat?” one supporter demanded of his friend, a member of Hezbollah’s military wing. “Did the regime have him killed and want to blame terrorists?”
“You know these Salafis,” the Hezbollah guy said, citing a common refrain that the rebels are al Qaeda members backed by the United States and Israel. “They use suicide bombings and can reach anyone if they want to.”
“Hezbollah has a plan,” he added. “The party knows that the regime can now fall and has a plan to protect Lebanon from these people if it does.”
I asked if, in the case of a rebel victory, Hezbollah expects that the mostly Sunni victors will take the war to the powerful Shiite group that dominates much of Lebanon. The car grew quiet as my question was translated for all to hear.
“Of course they will,” he said. “These people are crazy. But we are ready for them.”
And maybe they are — at least, in the short term. But the war in Syria has all the makings of a nasty sectarian conflict that will rebound around the Middle East for years to come. The Syrian regime’s propaganda that the rebels are nothing more than a group of Saudi and Israeli-backed jihadist nutters is just that — propaganda. But just because the rebels aren’t al Qaeda guys frothing at the mouth for the blood of Christians and Alawites doesn’t mean they’re cuddly Ewoks either. And it’s not just about religion: As we have seen in Libya, those who pick up weapons with the intention of fighting to the death to protect their homes rarely just go home and retire. They are deeply changed by having killed in the name of survival, and they want power — if only to prevent feeling so helpless ever again.
But for the first time in this long conflict, Assad’s opponents are allowing themselves a glimmer of optimism. After the interview with Assir, the Sunni sheikh was walking me to my car when a phone call arrived with the news of the bomb. After I told him it appeared that Shawkat and Rajiha had been killed, Assir — who consistently preached nonviolence in our interview — allowed a grin to erupt across his bearded face.
Reaching out to bump my hand in the classic “terrorist fist jab” that President Barack Obama once gave his wife after a speech, Assir quietly predicted the fall of the Syrian regime.
“God willing, by the end of Ramadan,” he said, referring to the holy month that begins in a few short days. “God willing.”
Mitchell Prothero is a writer and photographer based in Beirut.