It’s rare that Syrians — at least, all but the most hopeless pro-regime ones — rely on state media for a dose of good news. But Wednesday’s confirmed killings of at least three key members of the regime’s “crisis management cell” prove two things: first, that the revolution is now literally at Bashar Assad’s doorstep, and second, that diplomats have officially been written out of the script on what to do about Syria.
Let’s start with the former: The building targeted Wednesday was reportedly the National Security Compound in the Rawda district of Damascus, one of the most heavily fortified and wealthiest neighborhoods inside the capital. Rebel officials told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that there were two bombs — one hidden in a flower arrangement and one in a chocolate box — which had been smuggled into the meeting days earlier by Free Syrian Army members working closely with the drivers and bodyguards of the crisis management cell.
The victims confirmed by the Syrian regime so far are Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and brother-in-law to Assad; Dawood Rajha, the defense minister; and Hasan Turkmani, a former defense minister who is widely considered to be the mastermind behind the regime’s Inquisitorial torture network. (Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar was initially reported dead, though Syrian state media subsequently denied this.)
But don’t mind the titles. They don’t matter and never did, for the simple reason that influence in Syria is inextricable from one’s filial connection to the House of Assad, which has always behaved more like Levantine Borgias or a modern-day organized crime syndicate than a classic authoritarian dictatorship. This is why Brigadier General Manaf Tlass’ defection this month was so significant: His family was seen as the glue that bound the Sunni merchant class to the Alawite lordlings of Damascus, and so the abandonment was intended, and likely taken, as a personal slight. And it’s why Shawkat’s death is even more serious.
Shawkat, who has held many titles since he joined the army in the late 1970s, was tasked with overseeing all the intelligence directorates as well as some of its most historically sensitive “operations” including possibly orchestrating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Some members of the Assad regime blamed him for failing to protect Hezbollah heavy Imad Mugniyeh, who was killed under mysterious circumstances in a car bombing in Kafr Souseh, Damascus, in 2008. (Of course, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah isn’t about to concede his ally’s defeat just yet — he delivered a speech on the night of July 18 praising the slain Syrian officials as “comrades-in-arms on the path of the conflict.”)
Liaising with Hezbollah was a crucial responsibility for Shawkat, which may be why his death was first announced on the hardline Shiite group’s Al Manar television in Lebanon. Although he never got on well with Bashar’s younger brother Maher Assad, who commands the Fourth Armored Division, he was in many ways Maher’s mirror image in the mukhabarat: a feared and cunning architect of state repression who always had the president’s ear. When Bashar inherited his father’s role in 2000, an opposition poster joked that you could “vote for one president, get two more absolutely free” — a reference to Maher and Assef.
So far, both an obscure Islamist rebel group, Liwa al-Islam, and the Free Syrian Army headquartered in Antakya, Turkey, have claimed responsibility for the attack. Was it a suicide bombing, possibly by Rajha’s bodyguard, or a remotely detonated explosive device smuggled into the meeting room piecemeal? Who knows. But it seems unthinkable that this attack could have been carried out without the close collaboration of regime insiders, which was the real point of it anyway. It wasn’t designed to overthrow Assad in one go but to sow fear and paranoia within the remainder of his inner circle and put them on notice that they’re next unless they defect. “If history has taught us anything,” Michael Corleone said in “The Godfather II,” “it is that you can kill anyone.” The only tactics a mafia understands are its own.
As for continued diplomacy, the United States, Britain, France on one side, and Russia and China on the other, are in a pitched war of words over a country that exists only in their collective imagination, where a “political solution” is still thinkable and we’re only one stray comma away from the Chapter VII resolution that will bring lasting peace and stability.
This is either supreme fantasy or deep cynicism underwriting what is in fact a consensus that no one has the desire or will to sort out Syria. Rebels I spoke with recently in Istanbul, Turkey — they were there to attend a bomb-making seminar — told me that even if Assad were to renounce power, they’d fight on because the institutions of state terror, including the 27 torture dungeons recently anatomized by Human Rights Watch, would inevitably remain in place. No one abroad seems to want to listen to them. Maybe now they will.Michael Weiss is research director of the Henry Jackson Society. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.