A decapitation strike against Syria's top military echelons on Wednesday killed many of the masterminds behind the regime's 17-month-long campaign against opposition forces.
The attack, carried out in the country's national security headquarters in Damascus, points to a major breach in security and raises suspicions of internal breakdowns in the Syrian regime, even among those closest to President Bashar al-Assad.
The deputy prime minister and defense minister, the second in command of the country's military, General Dawoud Rajiha, along with deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces and deputy defense minister, Assef Shawkat, were both killed. Shawkat was the politically influential brother-in-law of Assad, married to his older sister Bushra.
At least two groups, including both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and an organization called Liwa al-Islam (the Brigade of Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. Riad al-Asaad (no relation to the Assads), the ex air force colonel heading the FSA, says that rebels planted an explosive inside a major meeting of defense officials, perhaps congregated to discuss the fierce street fighting in Damascus between government forces and rebels.
The government's Syrian Arab News Agency says both Rajiha and Shawkat were martyred by a terrorist blast. Western media reported that SANA earlier termed the attack a suicide terrorist attack. The FSA and others have denied that the attack was a suicide bombing and claims the attack's perpetrator got away unharmed.
Shawkat, the former head of Syria's military intelligence, is suspected of having played a part in planning the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The U.S. government said in 2006 that he was a fundamental contributor to Syria's long-standing policy to foment terrorism. Rajiha was an Orthodox Christian who the U.S. and EU say played a leading role in recent crackdowns. They had been targeted before: rumors abounded in May 2012 that both had been the target of attempted poisonings by the rebels.
Western media report that Syrian state media also confirmed the deaths of Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani and Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, Interior Minister, in the bombing. Hisham Ikhtiar, the Director of the National Security Bureau, was also seriously injured in the attack.
That means a large number of critical military decision makers are now incapacitated and unable to advise Assad, even as he faces ahis greatest challenge. The FSA has announced that current fighting in Damascus is part of its Operation Damascus Volcano, an effort to defeat the regime in its political and military stronghold.
The attack has served as a major psychological victory for the rebels, said Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. Everyone doubted their capacity before, but the fighting in Damascus and the recent bombing indicates the opposition is making inroads in taking the fight to the heart of the Assad regime.
Others expect that the nature of the attack will increase Assad's suspicions on his own inner circle. Elias Hanna, a Syrian military expert, told the New York Times on Wednesday that They [the officials] are irreplaceable at this stage, it's hard to find loyal people now that doubt is sowed everywhere. Whoever can get to Asef Shawkat can get to Assad.
The government, however, was quick to announce Gen. Rajiha's replacement by Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij. Both he and Assad will now feel pressure to plan a strong retaliation against rebel forces, in part to demonstrate the regime's resilience.
Yet elements within the Syrian military certainly are shaken. Significant defections and desertions following the recent attacks in the capital and over the past month have occurred, including that of General Munaf Tlass. While many officers have not directly joined the opposition forces, but have simply fled the country for safety and asylum in Turkey and the West, the actions as a whole are a significant signal of wider displeasure, even if die-hard loyalists remain.
Voting in the United Nations Security Council on sanctions against Syria, originally scheduled for Wednesday, has been delayed at the urgings of special envoy Kofi Annan. Had the voting gone ahead, Russia would have likely blocked any new efforts to punish the Assad regime, Moscow has consistently used its veto to block punishment for Damascus in the past.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, noted to the press on Wednesday that any new anti-Assad resolutions at the current juncture would have the effect of spurring opposition forces, perpetuating violence.
According to Syria observers like O'Bagy, however, any diplomatic efforts to create a political solution to the current conflict are too little, too late. Meaningful negotiations are impossible at this point, she says, and even if agreed upon by exiled Syrian political groups outside the country, may be rejected by rebel forces with real influence on the ground.
On July 17, the U.S. State Department confirmed that the death toll from the conflict has now surpassed 17,000... from the crackdown to the uprising.
Mass defections and strikes against the regime are certainly taking a toll, but it remains to be seen if they are enough at the moment to really cripple the numerous resources and forces at Assad's disposal.
Defense analysts remain skeptical that the rebel fighters currently in the capital will really end up toppling the government.
Syrian analysts more reserved about the effectiveness of either the government or rebel groups in turning the conflict to their advantage suggest the current fighting could still intensify, further fragmenting the country along political, religious, and ethnic lines.
Although the lightly armed opposition forces can operate far better than the heavily armed government forces in the narrow streets and alleyways of old Damascus, they are outnumbered and outgunned, making further significant gains in the capital difficult to deliver.
The Syrian Army's powerful Fourth Division, tasked with rooting out rebels from the capital, is led by the President's brother Maher al-Assad. It has been seen moving heavy armor into areas of the city and demolishing buildings in order to get at enemy fighters. There are also reports that the government is moving larger numbers of forces from the heavily defended Golan Heights bordering Israel to the capital.
In an effort to alleviate the impact of the new attacks, the government, putting up an ever-defiant stance, said that Syria, people, army and leadership, is today more determined to counter terrorism with all its forms and cutting off the hand of whoever thinks to harm Syria's security. State media noted that criminal gangs in the capital and other cities would be chased down. The military said that targeted killings used to intimidate the government were delusional.