Strike at the heart of the regime bursts Damascus bubble

Thu, Jul 19, 2012, 01:00

The oldest inhabited city in the world has been shaken by a very modern war, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

AFTER THE rebellion erupted in Syria, residents of the capital and observers spoke of the “Damascus bubble”. They meant the capital city was a place where people carried on more or less normally while Homs, Hama, Deraa, Deir al-Zor and Idlib were consumed by violence.

This week the bubble was punctured – by the bomb planted yesterday in national security headquarters, not far from the presidential palace.

The death of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who was deputy defence minister, was a serious blow to the ruling family and the Assads’ heterodox Shia Alawite community, which has played a key role in Syrian political life for 42 years.

The elimination of the most senior Greek Orthodox Christian in the cabinet, defence minister Daoud Rajha, is a mortal blow to the idea of a secular Syria, the raison d’etre of Baath party rule. Syria’s minorities – Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds and Circassians – are likely to feel all the more exposed and fearful due to the removal of these two men in particular, and the prospect of a fundamentalist Sunni Arab ascendancy.

The bombing of the country’s national security headquarters, combined with the four-day rebel offensive in the capital, named Operation Damascus Volcano, indicate that anti-regime forces could be more organised than previously believed, by both the government and observers of the scene.

Since it has been confirmed that the perpetrator was a bodyguard of one of the senior officials slain or wounded by the blast during a meeting at the security headquarters, the regime is certain to be deeply shaken psychologically. Its members will no longer trust the men and women around them.

Since such people have the highest security clearance, key regime figures are likely to question not only the effectiveness of vetting but also the loyalty of officers, creating a climate of suspicion in the primary structures that have kept the regime in power.

Although the government had been largely successful in imposing security in the capital for the first 16 months of the revolt, it was inevitable that the rebels would eventually try to mount an offensive there. For months, armed rebel fighters have been infiltrating the outer districts, particularly in the south.

According to refugees, some rebels seem to have been part of the migration of people fleeing to Damascus from the besieged cities and towns in Deraa, Homs, Hama and Idlib provinces.

Others from the restive satellite towns of Douma, Barzeh and Harasta sought sanctuary in the capital after these areas came under repeated attack by the army.

Although the rebels joined battles with the army in defined locations, it is not clear whether current operations amount to “the battle for Damascus” or “battles” over pockets of territory within the city.

The fate of these fighters depends on how the regime and the armed forces respond to the assassination of four key figures.

It is likely that the government will order an all-out war on rebel-held areas with the aim of purging the capital and surrounding cities, towns and villages of armed and unarmed dissidents. The government once believed it had been acting with restraint in the face of extreme provocation; it could now unleash all its military might against its enemies.

Damascus is the prize. The city grew up around an oasis and is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, as well as the physical, political and economic base of the regime.

Indeed, when Arabs speak of Syria, they use the name given to Damascus, al-Sham. Ultimately, he who rules in Damascus controls Syria. Therefore, the psychological impact of the assassinations and the mayhem on the streets of Damascus is certain to galvanise the country and could undermine the support the regime still enjoys.