Syria: ‘The next 24 hours are crucial’

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By Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen

The assassination Wednesday (July 18) of key members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle marked a dramatic turning point in the Syrian rebellion, but the growing prospect of regime collapse seemed to offer no near-term reprieve from the bloodshed and chaos that have engulfed one of the Middle East’s most pivotal nations.

“The next 24 hours are crucial,” Aram Nerguizian, a military expert and Levant specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Al-Monitor after the deaths of Assad’s brother in law, defense minister and other key officials were announced by Syrian state television.

“Either the regime and the security services hang together and try to recalibrate from this … or we move on to next phase of the crisis: decay and truly sectarian strife with the potential for even deeper cantonization,” Nerguizian said.

“It could go either way at this point, either triggering rapid regime collapse or massive regime assaults,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who consults the Obama administration on the region, told Al Monitor by email Wednesday. “Either way I think, as I have for months, that Assad is doomed.  But his choices today will have a serious effect on the amount of bloodshed and pain Syrians will have to suffer.”

“Let’s hope that the momentum sustains itself and Assad flees,” Lynch said.  “We’re not there yet. …. Even if he goes there’s a lot of post-Assad issues for which nobody really prepared — the price of the fragmented opposition and power of armed groups.”

Indeed, Nerguizian last week predicted a “protracted civil war like in Lebanon or Algeria” even if Assad steps down. Tensions between majority Sunnis and Assad’s Alawite clan, as well as regional and economic inequities in Syria, ensure continuing bloodshed, he told an audience at CSIS.

The Syrian opposition remains divided, with no transitional government groomed to take Assad’s place as was the case in Libya.

The international community is also divided, with Russia and Iran clinging to the Assad regime despite its horrific crackdown on Syrians over the past 17 months. A UN mission whose main achievement has been to investigate some of the human rights atrocities that have taken place in the country is about to see its mandate expire unless a divided Security Council can agree on new terms for extending it. UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan called Wednesday for the UN Security Council to postpone a planned vote Wednesday on a new Syria resolution as diplomats consulted at the highest level on the unfolding situation.

In Washington, official reaction to developments was mixed. “There is real momentum against Assad, with increasing defections, and a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding “it’s time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next.” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart, had a more cautious take, saying events on the ground appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.” British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond warned Assad that use of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpile “would not be tolerated.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” was underway in Damascus, but reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any UN resolution that would authorize international intervention in the country. “Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Lavrov told reporters at a news conference in Moscow Wednesday, Reuters reported

Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the New America Foundation, noted that the Syrian regime “still has a lot of firepower.” While she called the semi-decapitation of the government the “beginning of the end of the regime,” she said that it was possible that both Iran and Hezbollah would intervene more forcefully to try to rescue Assad. Continue reading

Syrian state TV: Syrian Defense Minister, Assad brother in law killed in suicide blast

Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Daoud Rajha and Bashar al-Assad’s powerful brother-in-law were killed in a suicide bombing of a cabinet meeting in Damascus Wednesday, Syrian state TV reported.

“The Minister of Defense was martyred by the terrorist bombing that targeted the national security building,” the State TV report said, according to the BBC.

Assef Shawkat, the husband of Assad’s sister and a senior defense official, was also killed in the blast, Syrian state TV later reported.

Several other ministers were reported to be wounded, some critically. Later reports said former Defense Minister and Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani subsequently died of wounds sustained in the blast.

The blast reportedly occurred at a national security building in the city’s Rawda district, which has been sealed off. Unconfirmed reports said the suicide bomber was a body guard for one of the ministers attending the meeting. The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack.

Syria’s Information Minister went on TV Wednesday to condemn the attack, blaming it on foreign-backed terrorists.

The attacks on Assad’s inner circle suggest the Syrian rebellion is entering a dramatic new phase after  four days of intense fighting in the Syrian capital.

“The demise of Rajha and Shawkat represents a partial decapitation of the Assad’s regime,” journalist Hisham Melhem wrote on Twitter. “Assad’s house is crumbling.”

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart Phillip Hammond, said events on the ground in Syria appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.”

“The violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” Panetta said.

Hammond warned Assad not to use his chemical weapons. “We will not tolerate the use or the proliferation of those chemical weapons,” Hammond said, the Associated Press reported.

Russian  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” appeared to be underway in Damascus.

But he reiterated Russia’s intention to block a UK-drafted resolution which had been due to be debated at the United Nations Security Council Wednesday. The session would likely be postponed, diplomats told Agence France Press.  Continue reading