Syrian President Bashar Assad and his younger brother Gen. Ali Maher Assad, commander of the Army's 4th Division and the Presidential Republican Guard leading the charge against dissenters, are estranged.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that this week, their falling-out started trickling down to the towns and villages of the Alawites, the Assad clan's minority sect which provides the backbone for the military command and the security and intelligence apparatuses which keep them in power.
Alawites make up about 12.5% of Syria's population of 27 million. They inhabit the Alawite Mountains along Syria's Mediterranean coast where Latakia and Tartous are their main cities and the plains around Hama and Homs, two of the most furious centers of dissent.
Four cracks show up in Assad's ruling clique and clan:
1. Pictures of the president have been taken down from the streets and squares of Alawite towns and villages and replaced with images of Ali Maher.
2. Alawite town mayors have contacted Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar Assad's exiled uncle and sworn enemy, who hasn't shown his face in Syria since 1992, and appealed to him to return at once to the Alawite Mountains with his son Sumer because "the community and family need you."
Rifaat, who is currently undergoing medical treatment in London, has always said Bashar was not fit to rule the country.
3. There are four Alawi confederations – Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddain and Matawirah, each divided into tribes. The Murshidon, one of the largest tribes and the most admired for its historic struggle for independence, has begun breaking off ties with the president and his administration in Damascus.
4. Senior figures in the Assad clan's home town of Qardaha are similarly separating themselves from the regime.
First direct US intervention
For the first time in the four-month Syrian uprising, therefore, the Alawis are thinking seriously of putting a new man in the president's palace. They want Bashar Assad to step down but also keep the Assad family in power. The Alawis are not ready to relinquish rule after more than 40 years.
The opposition was meanwhile bucked up by the thousands of satellite phones which the United States and Saudi Arabia managed to put in activists' hands in the last two weeks, as debkafile's military and intelligence sources first disclosed Tuesday, July 26.
The phones enable them to surmount the communications cutoff among the countrywide protest centers which Damascus clamped down with the help of Iranian experts.
American and Saudi agents who smuggled the phones into Syria gave service providers carte blanche accounts to cover unlimited use.
This was the Obama administrations first direct covert operation clearly identifiable as US intervention on the side of the protest movement fighting to unseat Assad.
And that was not all. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources also reveal that US undercover agents and communications experts have smuggled hi-tech equipment into Syria for LCC-Local Coordination Communications, a network which is secured against Syrian-Iranian infiltration and enables the opposition leaders to stay in contact with the field commanders in the embattled towns and villages across the country.
Eminent cleric's books are burned for collaborating with Assad
The opposition felt confident enough Wednesday, July 27, to announce that demonstrations would take place nightly during the month of Ramadan starting around July 30-31. The news caused dismay in the circles around the Syrian president who had hoped for a 30-day lull in the bloody clashes and a rest for the security and army troops. They had pinned their hopes of easing the charged anti-regime climate in the country on ushering in the holy month with a huge public event in Aleppo Thursday July 29, complete with Syria's top performing artists.
To keep the crowds off the streets, the authorities sought help from the clergy. The country's 30 most senior clerics were urged to convene and issue a collective fatwa (religious edict) excusing the faithful from attending the mosques for Taraweeh, the nightly Ramadan prayer marking the end of each day's fast. In consideration of the exceptionally hot weather (night temperatures soared past 25 degrees Celsius), worshippers were to be allowed to recite the prayer at home.
This stratagem ran up against the clerics' refusal to cooperate – excepting only one: Sheikh al-Bouti, Syria's foremost scholar, Muslim world eminence and head of the Theology Department in the faculty of Islamic Law at Damascus University, agreed to issue this dispensation.
It was widely circulated Sunday, July 24, providing the signal for masses of people in many Syrian cities to collect his books on Islamic law and ceremonially burn them.