The bombing of the Security Headquarters of the Baath government of Syria on Wednesday killed the Minister of Defense, the deputy Minister of Defense, and the Assistant to the vice-president and head of crisis management office Gen Hassan Turkomani. It wounded the Minister of the Interior (i.e. head of the secret police) and a member of the national security council. Some reports said that also wounded was Hafez al-Makhlouf, a cousin of the president on his mother’s side of the family and a key security figure. The Makhloufs, especially Ramy, are the business wing of the al-Assad cartel, and their billionaire ways were among the sources of discontent that provoked the uprising.
What does this bombing mean for Syria and the Middle East?
1. It demonstrates that the rebels have sympathizers in high positions within the regime. The bomb had to have been planted by an insider. This situation reminds me of the American dilemma in Vietnam, where we now know that many high-ranking Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers were in fact sympathizers with the Communists and basically double agents.
2. It follows upon this conclusion that the al-Assad regime is unlikely to be able to emulate the Algerian military, which crushed the Islamic Salvation Front in a brutal civil war from 1992 through the early zeroes of the present century. Some 150,000 Algerians are said to have died in the dirty war, with atrocities on both sides. But when the smoke cleared, the junta was still in control, and its favored secular civilians were in office. In all that time, the Muslim fundamentalist opposition never laid a glove on any of the high officials or officers. But the Algerian elite closed ranks against the Islamic Salvation Front, having a cultural set of affinities and a common source of patronage in the state-owned oil and gas sector.
If the rebels in Syria can reach into the Security HQ this way, and assassinate the highest security officials of the regime, that ability does not augur well for Bashar al-Assad’s ability to win the long game, as his counterparts did in Algeria.
3. The targets of the bombing were likely intended to send a message to Syria’s minorities. The minister of defense, Daoud Rajha, was a Christian. The Christian minority, which could be as large as 14% of the population, has been on the fence during the revolution, and some actively support the secular nationalist regime because they fear Muslim fundamentalists will come to power. Rajha’s assassination was intended to warn them to join the revolution or at least get out of its way. Likewise, Assef Shawkat, the deputy minister of defense, was an Allawite Shiite and was married to Bushra, the sister of Bashar al-Assad. If it is true that Hafez Makhlouf was wounded, he was another prominent Allawite. The rebels are largely (with significant exceptions) Sunni Muslims, from the majority community that has not typically held its fair proportion of high office.
4. The rein of terror unleashed by the Allawites on the Sunni rebels, using Ghost Brigade death squads, has backfired big time. Many Sunnis formerly allied with the regime have turned on it, including at the highest levels. The defection of the Sunni Tlass family, who had dominated the ministry of defense and regime business interests for decades, is a straw in the wind here.
5. The rocket-propelled grenades smuggled to the opposition by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as part of their proxy war against Iran, are allowing the rebels occasionally to kill tanks and take down helicopter gunships. The more such weapons they have, and the more sophisticated they are, the more they help level the playing field for the rebels.
6. Defections and desertions of Sunni enlisted men and low-level officers could accelerate in the wake of the bombings, as soldiers become convinced that the regime will eventually fall. They won’t want to risk their lives fighting for a ship that is anyway sinking, and won’t want to risk being seen as war criminals in the aftermath.
7. The economic disruptions in the capital could be decisive. With the rebels now fighting in districts like Midan and Tadamun, the Syrian business classes are not going to be making any money for a while. Since for them, the purpose of the Baath Party is to throw them licenses and government contracts, they will turn on it if it is unable to satisfy their needs.
8. The fall of the Baath regime in Syria would leave Hizbullah high and dry. Its rockets and other weapons, and some of its communications and code-breaking abilities, depended on Syrian help. The leader of the Hizbullah Shiites of south Lebanon (a neighbor of Syria), Hassan Nasrullah, gave a speech Wednesday unapologetically supporting the Baath regime and sending condolences to the families of those killed. If the regime does fall, the new government is likely to have a grudge with Hizbullah for a while. The downside of any weakening of Hizbullah is that it could encourage Israeli expansionism in South Lebanon, as in the 1980s and 1990s (Israel’s leaders have long wanted to steal the water in south Lebanon’s rivers).
9. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force among the rebels, and it likely will play an outsized role in a post-Baath Syria. It has ties to the Muslim fundamentalist party, Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip. Hamas could therefore become and more formidable adversary for Israel, if it is supported by both the Egyptian and Syrian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood.
10. Given the proliferation of medium weapons among the rebels, the longer the civil war goes on, the more likely these arms are to flow into Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, enabling small guerrilla groups in those countries to challenge the status quo. If the Baath hangs on for years rather than months, the whole region could see more decades of instability. That is why Jordan just declared martial law and has begun turning back refugees at the Syrian border, why Israel’s security establishment had an urgent meeting Wednesday, and why Syria’s other neighbors are watching developments there with anxiety and suspicion.