Sunday, May 22, marked two new developments in the fierce confrontation between the Assad regime and Syria's protesters which has claimed at least 1,100 lives in three months.
That day saw Syrian military, security and intelligence troops moving into the high-end centre and suburbs of Damascus, which have so far been untouched by the violence sweeping the country. Backed by armored vehicles, they set up hundreds of road blocks to fragment the city into tiny military sectors. Each contingent was made responsible for keeping the streets in his sector clear of trouble. Civilians trying to move between the sectors are now subjected to stringent and humiliating searches – often with beatings.
No longer can any Damascene inhabitant be sure of reaching his destination in the city or even returning home. Men or women are picked up off the streets and hauled off to interrogation centers. At best, their cell phones are impounded on the pretext of checking the last numbers called.
As the week wore on, an eerie silence descended on the streets of the Syrian capital. Hardly any vehicles or passers-by are now to be seen. The odd pedestrian venturing outdoors makes sure to carry no bags or parcels that would subject him to searches or mobile phones that would be seized.
Clearly, the regime was panicked into expecting Damascus to explode into protest action like most other cities, possibly misled by false reports. Nothing happened. But the regime and the Syrian capital seem to be holding their breath for something to break the tension.
Protesters display placards of Iranian and Hizballah officers
In another new feature of the savage contest, protesters are holding aloft large portraits of Iranian and Hizballah officers photographed taking part in the Syrian military crackdown. The placards sprouted over rallies across the country this week as demonstrators called for the foreign thugs, identified by name, to be attacked and hounded out of Syria.
The government pretends to be nonchalant in the face of a growing number of countries imposing sanctions on President Bashar Assad by name and his top commanders. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that behind the high walls of the presidential palace and the general command, two warring factions are locked in a fierce dispute, which threatens to split the top military and intelligence commands from top to bottom.
On the one hand, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Nassif, head of the Syrian intelligence services and Assistant Vice President for Intelligence Gen. Ali Mamluk – both of whom have been targeted for US and European sanctions – have told the president in no uncertain terms that the time has come to start meeting protesters' demands.
Mamluk said: "You can't just sit in your palace and do nothing. If you want to survive you'll have to start building yourself a new image and separating yourself from the discredited regime, because as things stand now, everyone in the country holds you personally responsible for the killings and brutal repression."
Assad's kinsmen will resist any let-up on the crackdown
The general urged Assad to set up a public council for national reconciliation with himself a member and order arrests of army and security officers notorious for outstanding cruelty.
Run "confessions" by army officers admitting to shooting demonstrators in defiance of your orders every night over state television, Mamluk advised, instead of the "confessions" no one believes by regime opponents that they were paid by foreigners to stage street violence.
This advice is sharply opposed by two of the president's close kinsmen, his younger brother Maj. Gen. Maher Assad, 43, the Republican Guard strongman who oversees the harsh measures against demonstrators, and his brother-in-law Maj. Gen. Assef Shawqat, recently named deputy chief of staff.
Both have warned the president that if he tries to let up on the crackdown on protest, they will resist him by force if necessary.
This is the first known crack in the solid military front Syrian ruler's closest and most trusted military circle has presented so far in the face of tenacious popular dissent. A sharp-edged wedge has begun dividing the Assad clan's military elite from its loyalists at the top of its intelligence apparatus.