Last-minute: The day after losing his top men to an assassin’s bomb, Bashar Assad had a new command ready to run his war against the Syrian opposition: He placed at its head his younger brother, Gen. Maher Assad, commander of the 4th Division; Gen. Ali Mamlouk heads of the General Security Service; Gen. Hafez Makhlouf is military commander of Damascus; and Gen. Ali Hassan is commander of the Alawite Shabiha militia.
Tanks were brought into the capital to back the new offensive launched against the rebels holding the southern suburbs. Armed rebel convoys are trying to reach Damascus from Aleppo in the north through innumerable military roadblocks dotting the single highway.
What are Bashar Assad’s chances of surviving the loss of four of his eight henchmen?
Defense Minister Daoud Abdullah Rajiha, Deputy Chief of Staff Assif Shawqat – Assad’s brother-in-law, and Gen. Hassan Turkmeni, a close Assad family friend and chief of staff of the campaign against the uprising, are dead and the Interior Minister is fighting for his life and of no more use to his master.
Those are the men who ran the killing machine against the uprising for ending his rule.
According to our counter-terror sources, they were killed by a 40-kilogram bomb planted in the conference chamber where Syrian ministers and security leaders held their daily meetings at the heavily fortified National Security building in Damascus.
It was detonated at 10:00 A.M. Wednesday, July 18, either by remote control or a timer set for the exact time of the meeting.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly thinks he can survive their loss and has already displayed remarkable flexibility in replacing them.
Will he be able to retain his absolute grip on the Syrian army – as he has for the 17 months of the uprising?
The answer is: Not quite.
Assad turns mass desertions to his advantage
The first hours after the assassinations saw officers, commanders and soldiers dropping out in droves from battlefronts and positions. The desertions continued Thursday, July 19. However, the hard-core units devoted to the Assad clan continued to fight loyally for the president, especially the 4th Syrian Division under the command of his younger brother, Gen. Maher Assad.
This division was recently restructured and reinforced with the addition of special operations and other units. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say that, paradoxically, the disaster striking Assad helped him cull his military and get rid of unreliable elements likely to desert when the fighting grew tougher. He feels he has benefited by shedding them now and not when the scales of war are at tipping point.
Can Assad maintain control of Damascus?
The assassinations in his inner circle have not changed the fact that four days earlier, he lost some southern sections of his capital of 1.8 million inhabitants when they were overrun by rebel forces, although he was able to keep the raiders hemmed in and surrounded.
No radical change in this impasse is foreseen for now by our military sources, because the rebels are short of the fire power and fighting strength for a final showdown with government units – certainly for conquering the entire city.
Assad and his top circle neither panicked nor cracked
Did they lose their heads?
That is the key question. The answer is: No.
Neither the Syrian president nor his immediate circle succumbed to panic; nor did they crack irreparably when the shocking news of the assassinations reached them.
So what then did the decimation of the top Syrian command echelon achieve?
The loss of his two closest intimates, Hassan Turkmeni and Assif Shawqat, was an agonizing personal blow for the Syrian ruler. Agonizing but not crippling.
It also demonstrated his and his inner circle’s vulnerability to assassination. He realizes that the next bomb might have his number.
He also discovered he dare not blindly trust the Russian, Iranian and Hizballah security agencies tasked with keeping him and the top tier of his regime alive. Their vaunted security experts fell down on the job on that fateful Wednesday. They and their masters in Moscow, Tehran and Beirut are therefore big-time losers from the episode.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report that the Obama administration, in the belief that President Assad was seriously weakened and his backers ready to distance themselves from Damascus, decided Thursday, July 19, to switch around his Syria policy: Reliance on the UN and its envoy Kofi Annan for producing a solution was abandoned and pressure for an urgent UN Security Council vote on the new British draft resolution dropped. No more resolutions were to be tabled in the teeth of relentless Russian and Chinese vetoes.
Obama’s revamped Syria strategy is flatly rejected by Putin
Instead, the Obama administration resolved on an effort to put together a new coalition of Western and Arab countries over the weekend. It would take over the function of the Security Council as a senior international forum for demanding that Assad and his family leave Syria forthwith and hand the reins of government to a transitional government.
The administration has not yet decided whether to frame these demands as an ultimatum with an expiration date or if and when to back it up by military force.
By this move, our Middle East sources report, the Obama administration has partially caved in to Saudi clamoring for direct action against Assad..
But when President Obama put the plan to Russian President Vladimir Putin after Wednesday’s deadly bombing in Damascus, our Moscow sources report he ran into a flat nyet.
Indeed, Putin warned him that the US and Russia were headed for a collision course over Syria.
So did the assassinations in Damascus loosen Moscow’s affinity for the Assad regime?
The answer is a resounding no. And so another Obama maneuver bites the dust.