Top Ten Implications of the Damascus Bombing

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 That is why Israel’s security establishment had an urgent meeting Wednesday, and why Syria’s other neighbors are watching developments there with anxiety and suspicion.

31 Responses

  1. “That is why Jordan just declared martial law and has begun turning back refugees at the Syrian border…”

    Checked with security sources (Thursday 1330/Amman), and Jordan is NOT under martial law and refugees are NOT being turned back at the border. Jordan has been screening refugees and turning back those who do not pass security scrutiny or are deemed by UNHCR as economic migrants. In the past, there have been attempts by pro-Assad supporters to infiltrate the holding centres as refugees; one was caught trying to poison water supply in one of the facilities; young Syrian males travelling solo–i.e., without family–have been treated as suspect and turned away. Average Syrian refugee input into Jordan over past 3 days stands between 800-1,000/day. Plans under way by Jordan gvt. and UNHCR to be able to accommodate up to 500,000 refugees if the situation continues to worsen.
    As an academician, you should be responsible for the “facts” you disseminate.

      • Interesting exchange. In my field(s) (science/engineering), we only carry so many significant digits. Three (3) usually is usually enough; I would guess then your error rate over the past ten years is about 0.00%

  2. Interesting, the words “suicide bombing” and “terrorist” do not appear here. Not even as speculation.

    • The most likely explanation for why “suicide bombing” was not used is that this was not a suicide bombing. The estimates are that 1000 pounds of explosives were hidden in the building. That’s a hell of a bomb vest! And the bomber, a security guard, is quite alive, according to reports from the opposition.

      Also, combatants in an internationally-recognized war (the ICHR declared it a civil war two days ago) killing the other side’s military commanders are acting well within the laws and customs of war. You are, in fact, allowed to be sneaky when prosecuting a war, without your actions qualifying as terrorism.

      • really, one can hardly seriously consider this a civil war – with the likes of the US, UK, other nato players and the reactionary gulf states/absolutist monarchists of saudi arabia and oman all sending in hundreds of millions in arms, equipment, fighters, supplying intelliegence, and training the so-called rebels of the not so ‘free syrian army’, a patsy if ever there was one – and that’s not even to mention turkey’s huge hand in all this. if they closed their borders completely, there would likely be no ‘civil war’ in syria.

        and to make it clear, i have no sympathy for the assad regime, a bunch of war criminals to be sure but I absolutley refuse to jump on this neo-con and liberal western pro-war bandwagon and militarize yet another conflict in the middle east, it’s just outrageous.

        I’m with the arab spring and the non-violent protestors, and the many internal parties who refuse to accept a militarization of this internal conflict/power struggle

        • So maybe it’s possible that some of these Syrians we see and read about dying are fighting for themselves against Assad’s barbarism? This wasn’t instigated by the west or Saudis, etc. This is one more domino that is falling starting from Tunisia. It’s pretty condescending (and illogical) to attribute the Arab Spring to the CIA and GCC states. And God forbid that we or anyone else should support people who want their freedom and don’t want to be massacred.

          Are you kidding? You refuse to be part of the bandwagon to militarize Syria? It’s already militarized, see all that death and destruction. I have no problem with anyone giving them weapons, money, intel and training to protect themselves.

          And if the West, Saudis, etc. are propping up the opposition, what are Iran-IRGC, Hezbollah, Russia doing for Syria? Their support to the regime is much greater and more enduring than anything the FSA and co have gotten.

        • really, one can hardly seriously consider this a civil war

          Oddly enough, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which actually has monitors on the ground, disagrees with you. No doubt, your monitors on the ground have better access than theirs.

          with the likes of the US, UK, other nato players and the reactionary gulf states/absolutist monarchists of saudi arabia and oman all sending in hundreds of millions in arms, equipment, fighters, supplying intelliegence, and training the so-called rebels of the not so ‘free syrian army

          If foreign powers back one side, it’s not a civil war? Someone tell Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Oh, btw, you totally accidently forgot to include Russia in your list.

  3. I’d like to propose a different scenario in No. 8. Nasrallah has identified so strongly with Bashar’s murderous regime that the damage to future Syria-Hizbullah relations are likely to be far more than temporary. Memories in the region are long and whomever takes over in Damascus will not forget Hizbullah’s betrayal of the Syrian masses. We’ll see how long Hizbullah can function as an alternate-state/military power inside Lebanon once its chief source of arms dries up. Hizbullah is not Lebanon and the other confessional sects would like to see its power cut down to size. That would be all for the good of the state.

    • You seem to be assuming that Hezbollah’s rise to power had nothing to do with the abuses against Lebanon’s soon-to-be-majority Shia population by the corrupt oligarchic Saudi-backed Sunnis and the formerly-fascist Christians and the endless procession of foreign occupiers.

      If you really believe in democracy, then you should be calling for Lebanon to finally do a new census that would reveal the size of the Shia population, and call for one-man one-vote. Then the Shia wouldn’t need Hezbollah’s protection, as every single ethnic/religious group in Lebanon/Syria (itself an artificial division) seems to require.

      • I somehow manage to believe that Hizbollah’s rise to power involves resentment over the history of sectarian conflict andthat there should be a new census and that the drying-up of support from Syria will deal them a setback, all at the same time.

        Why do you assume that the first two beliefs refute the third?

        • Because I believe that any alternative to Hezbollah will be what we’ve already seen in Lebanon, meaning worse for the poor. The Hariris created a Potemkin economy run by Saudi lords and Thatcherite dogmas.

          Because a census would favor the poor, it won’t happen. It’s always been hinted that it would lead to a new civil war. Hezbollah’s cleverness was to give up the census in exchange for an ad hoc power-sharing bargain, which it’s good at.

          And to put it bluntly, because the things I’ve seen over the course of my life convince me that non-militarized uprisings by the poor probably won’t succeed enough to stop the truly monstrous crimes that the global corporate oligarchy is cooking up this very minute. Citizens United, global warming denial, massive thefts of clean water, the imposition of privatized prison slavery and the still-growing gap between rich and poor will eventually take the West to serfdom and selective extinction. All we will have left is the right to revolution, just like in the 1890s, and it will take all the organizational lessons of past revolutionaries like Hezbollah and the Vietminh to even begin to force the bad guys to concede power.

        • And to put it bluntly, because the things I’ve seen over the course of my life convince me that non-militarized uprisings by the poor probably won’t succeed enough to stop the truly monstrous crimes that the global corporate oligarchy is cooking up this very minute.

          And from this, you conclude that the drying up of Hezbollah’s main source of weapons and other military support – that is, the Assad regime – will not deal them a setback?

          That’s a very interesting thought process.

  4. Dear Juan,
    Interesting commentary on whether a resolution might involve the formation of an Alawite state:
    link to nationalinterest.org

    I have just started to educate myself on the mysterious Alawis, and was surprised to learn that there was briefly an Alawite state in 1920’s:
    link to upload.wikimedia.org

    If not a seperate state, perhaps the international community might sanction/protect a safe area for Alawites and Christians?

    Your blog has enriched my life greatly the past 10 years. I appreciate your intellectual honesty as a commentator, which to me means a willingness to allow pragmatism trump ideology when required.

    • I am terribly ignorant about Syria. It appears to me that the only possibility for negotiated peace is for every ethnic group to be guaranteed that it won’t be exterminated by the others. This is the kind of problem that plagued the Balkans, and the attempted solutions were terrible. Finally it ended with UN occupiers completing Yugoslavia’s partition. How else can these grou7ps be prevented from future reprisals?

    • If persectution of minorities is a real threat, then I would be for setting up a protected area for those people. But all of these minorities have coexisted within a larger majority throughout history. I think methods of power-sharing that work amongst disparate groups should be analyzed OR the fact that people see themselves as part of a historical grouping that maintain a sense of identity is part of the problem and needs addressing.

  5. It seems to me there is a great deal more you could say about the possible denouement here, and complications. First of all, the collapse of the regime won’t necessarily lead to any sort of clear outcome or replacement state in Syria, not any time soon. It seems to me that you could in fact end up with a praetorian situation, perhaps an extended period of conflict with different powers based in territorial enclaves. You might see a Kurdish irredentist movement, an Allawite enclave on the coast – maybe even with Assad surviving there even though he’s lost his grip on much of the country. The Iranians will invest whatever they can in helping him hold out, I should think. These divides obviously spill over into Iraq, and could energize Shiite minorities in the Gulf monarchies — the potential regional consequences are quite disturbing, in my view, if this can’t get settled. And I’m not quite sure I see how it can be.

    Your thoughts?

  6. maybe it wasn’t a hand-placed bomb.
    crater analysis (from photos) hints of a Predator drone strike.
    I don’t think the rebels, whoever they are, have drones.

    • Estimates are that there were 1000 pounds of explosives used. Predators cannot carry 1000 pound payloads, or anything close to it.

      • Never mind, that report appears to be wrong. Fog of war + internet.

        Later reports say that the bombs were placed in a flower pot and a box of chocolates.

        My momma told me life is like a box of chocolates…

        • I guess the conspiracy guys will now regale us with web links proving that a Predator drone has the capability to plant bombs inside a flowerpot and a box of chocolates.

  7. barbara marciniak once wrote that the middle east was a hologram created by subtle beings whose food is the energy produced by emotional agitation .. something like a hollywood film for them …

    hard to argue with that, seeing what goes on there, endlessly

  8. I wonder about #3. Isn’t it more likely that the bombers, whoever they are, were merely targeting the top of the military command, and that the sectarian/ethnic identities of those killed is a byproduct of the make-up of the regime?

  9. “…But the Algerian elite closed ranks against the Islamic Salvation Front,..”

    Algerian Government was not a one family cartel,totally monopolizing power, wealth and commerce to its family clan.
    Assad’s real base support is very small, it got bigger when Islamist used sectarian terrorism against minorities, instead of gaining their support.

    “…If the rebels in Syria can reach into the Security HQ this way, and assassinate the highest security officials of the regime, ..”

    They did not. Someone else did it.

    “…If the Baath hangs on for years rather than months, the whole region could see more decades of instability..”

    At this pace,you are looking at 2 years max,maybe 18 months,that is all.

  10. I just heard that dear leader is vacationing in a city on the coast. He probably wants to check on his new yacht, the Pyotr Velikiy.

    • A lot of National Socialist “leaders” took that deal, when it was offered by the “winning” governments in 1945 and thereafter… Took a lot of the treasures of Europe with them, too.

      Kind of like Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang gang did when they fled the mainland, and invaded and took over Formosa (subjugating and dispossessing the folks who, you know, LIVED there, sounding like a lot of other more recent events), ripping off the portable wealth and art of an ancient land. No falling on THEIR swords, for any of these kleptocrats, ha ha ha.

      At least the Germans seem to have ended up with a bit more stability and a lot kinder and gentler social order. Italians? Not so much, but then our sneaky petes have a lot to do with how that came to be… link to killinghope.org

      When you have “Wild Bill” wild cards stirring parts of the pot in different directions, it’s so very hard to even make a list of possible prediction outcomes, let alone do anything to help them along in a sustainable, “golden rule” kind of direction.

    • Gaddafi had the same opportunity but refused to take it. It’s arguable whether Assad is any more sane.

  11. Quite a naive reading of Hizballah’s position and capabilities. Also, what an odd if not eerily reductionist reference “leader of the Hizbullah Shiites of south Lebanon (a neighbor of Syria)”. Are you serious here? Last time I checked, Shiites reside throughout Lebanon and are probably the largest confessional population in Beirut. Hizbullah’s position is strategic and little else. Most Shia of Lebanon feel little sectarian love for the Alawi. This is a regional war and one that the fundamentalist Khaleeji Sunni base and their hardline Ikhwaan/Salafi affiliates throughout the region would like to play out on the symbolic battlefield of Karbala writ large across the Levant and Iraq/Iran. You, sir, should know and understand the complexities of that better than anyone. Go to Beirut and talk to your average Shia (or Christian) and you’ll get a sense of their existential fears. One outcome of the Syrian war that you seem to have ignored altogether is the likely strengthening of ties between Shia and Christians, especially in Lebanon. Matters are different for Christians in Lebanon/Syria than they are in Egypt. The typical Egyptian neighborhood is not armed to the teeth and does not have the recent memory of civil war. Whatever happens in Syria, what’s clear is that the war will spill over into Lebanon. That said, short of carpet bombing southern Lebanon back to the stone age, Israel will never ever retake Lebanese territory. That is not and will never be on the table.

    Your readers deserve better.

    • You have read things into the piece that aren’t there. I didn’t say anything about Twelver and Allawi affinity! I was in Beirut in January and talked to a wide range of people. All I said was that Nasrallah supported Bashar and his circle unrepetentingly. If you don’t think that hurts him, and not just with Sunnis, it is you who haven’t talked to a wide range of Lebanese.

  12. The incumbent Algerian regime never faced any foreign trade or financial sanctions after they started a civil war against the parties that had beat them at the polls in 1992. To the contrary, the regime actually received considerable loans and military aid, especially from the secular West, after they repressed the emergent democracy.

    So there is no point in comparing Algeria and Syria. The overall circumstances are far too different.

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