This week's events in Damascus have struck at the heart of the regime, both mentally and physically. The deaths of the security officials overnight are raising some questions: why hasn't President Assad appeared on state TV to speak to the people? Did last night's assassinations occur as was claimed?
It will take time for the facts to emerge. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army, which months before appeared to be a disparate group of regional self-defence groups, this week launched an attack on Damascus designed to coincide with a key UN Security Council meeting and UN diplomacy with China and Russia, the two key impediments to a unified UNSCR. The degree to which foreign assistance has been key to the opposition's recent success can be seen from this David Ignatius article.
But the military success of this week's attack was irrelevant; the fact that the Syrian Government had to deploy additional forces to the capital to defend itself was the desired aim, giving those negotiating with Russia evidence that the regime's days were numbered.
Last night's assassination of Deputy Defence Minister (and Bashar al-Assad's brother in law) Asaf Shawkat, Defence Minister Daoud Rajiha and Hassan Turkmani, head of the crisis management office, is a real coup and has dealt a big blow to Assad's regime. The opposition understands that this regime relies on its unity in the face of intense domestic and international pressure. The defections to date have been publicised as significant, but the really key insiders have stayed loyal. These assassinations are designed to send a message that the regime is vulnerable and encourage those who think taking their chances with defection is preferable to being killed.
The Assad regime has not given any indication that it is likely to implode just yet, but with every signature attack and every death or defection of a regime insider, the noose becomes tighter. What had seemed like a remote possibility even six months ago seems a real prospect now, and it is this sense of panic that the regime will need to suppress if it hopes to survive.
Assad moved quickly to patch the significant hole left by the assassinations. The new Defence Minister, Fahd al-Freij, is a former Chief of Staff and will be able to stabilise the political situation for a while at least. Despite rumours of mass defections following the blast, the regime is not likely to fall just yet. The opposition has sown doubt in all minds through its bold attack on Damascus, but the core elements of the Syrian military will probably continue to battle it out.
The West is keen to prize Russia away from its Syrian ally in order to pull away the last remnant of Assad's mainstream international support. Showing that the regime's days are numbered is a good way of doing that. The death of regime insiders in Damascus will drive home this point.
Should the regime crumble, there's the small matter of securing Syria's WMD stockpiles and ensuring that an all-out sectarian war doesn't break out. Nobody said a Syria solution was going to be easy.
Photo by Flickr user CharlesFed.