Conventional wisdom on the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad pegs its success on Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and business center with 1.7 million inhabitants – one-tenth of the Syrian population. For nearly four months this middle-class, high-end city mostly sat on the fence except for minor outbreaks. It was said that Aleppo was waiting for the Obama administration to tell Assad clearly that it wass time for him to go. So long as Aleppo stayed out of the anti-government struggle, Assad was safe.
Indeed, last week, a quarter of a million turned out in solidarity with the beleaguered president.
Now, the message from Washington has finally come through. The Obama administration has had enough of Assad and is ready to see him go.
This shift was first marked Thursday, July 7, when US Ambassador Robert Ford paid a visit to the Muslim Brotherhood protest center of Hama, and returned the next day with French Ambassador Eric Chevalier.
Understanding the message from Washington, Assad sent his Shabiha militia thugs Monday, July 11, to ravage the US and French embassies in Damascus and Ambassador Ford's private residence, thus provoking a final crisis with Washington.
In condemning the attack, the US named the Syrian ruler for the first time: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared he was not indispensible and the US had no vested interest in his staying in power. "If anyone, including President Assad, thinks that the United States is secretly hoping that the regime will emerge from this turmoil to continue its brutality and repression, they are wrong," said Clinton.
The next day (Tuesday, July 12), President Barack Obama said in a television interview, "You're seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people."
The impact of this change of face on America's Middle East standing depends very much on the numbers turning out on the side of the opposition in the Syrian bellwether city of Aleppo this coming Friday and Saturday (July 15-16).
First oil sabotage the work of Saudi-backed Shamar tribesmen
They may find encouragement in the plans Ambassadors Ford and Chevallier – first reported by debkafile's exclusive sources Wednesday, July 13 – to repeat the "Hama maneuver" and visit the eastern Syrian oil city of Deir al-Zour and Abu Kemal, the Syrian town closest to the Iraqi border.
On the day of this disclosure, a Syrian oil pipeline was bombed in that same vicinity.
Syria's official SANA news agency quoted an unnamed official source in the oil ministry as reporting a fire at an oil pipeline connecting the al-Omar field and the al-Taim oil station affiliated with the Euphrates Oil Company in Deir al-Zour province, some 458 kilometers northeast of Damascus.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report that the explosion, the first act of sabotage against Syrian strategic infrastructure, was the work of Shammar tribesmen living in the area under the direction of Saudi intelligence. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 498 of June 24: The Saudis may also strike Syria's oil resources).
These actions plus the denunciations of the Syrian ruler by name by the US president and secretary of state may well, in the view of Middle Eastern and Western intelligence sources, kindle the fire of revolt against Assad in Aleppo too. After that, the uprising's next stop is Damascus.
Assad blows his only shot at dialogue
This evaluation is based on four additional developments:
1. Bashar Assad's plan to crush the uprising by unleashing against the rebels loyalist army and security service units made up largely of Alawite and Druze servicemen failed to achieve its object. These units – mostly from the Presidential Republican Guard and the 4th Division commander by his brother Gen. Maher Assad – were effective for a short time but unable to prevent the resurgence of street protest.
2. If the revolt continues to recur in flashpoint locations and erupt in new ones like Aleppo, the Syrian ruler will have to fall back on ordinary Syrian army divisions to control them. This is a gamble he has avoided so far because most of the troops are Sunni Muslims and there is no telling how they will conduct themselves against Sunni-let protesters.
3. This week Assad blew his only shot at dialogue with the opposition. The two days of meetings he initiated under the heading of "national dialogue" broke down quickly when it became clear that no really influential opposition member had been invited – only figureheads and yes men. In the current climate, the Syrian ruler will not get a second chance for reconciliation with his enemies.
4. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has cut all ties with Damascus, effectively abandoning his erstwhile friend Bashar Assad to his fate.
Those same Middle East intelligence sources calculate that Assad has gone too far to retreat and is more likely than not to redouble the brutality of his crackdown on those demonstrating against his regime. Whether or not Aleppo responds to the new tune coming from Washington, more blood is expected to flow in Syria before he is ousted.