Violence In Damascus Escalates: Is Assad On The Ropes?

Analysis of the latest developments in Syria

on June 28 2012 3:08 PM
A strong explosion rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus
A strong explosion rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus on Thursday. The blast took place in the parking lot of the Palace of justice. SANA

With the attack on the Palace of Justice on Thursday, a pro-regime television station on Tuesday and the raid on a Republican Guard barracks in Damascus last week, it appears as if the Syrian rebels are getting closer and closer to President Bashar al-Assad.

The attack on the barracks by the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group that is made up of soldiers who defected from the Syrian military, was the closest that rebels have come to the regime. By most accounts, the FSA has stepped up action in the capital city -- the attack on the main courthouse on Thursday, which wounded three people, was the latest advance -- but the small raid, while just a test for when the battle does move to Damascus, according to the FSA, was done in the shadow of the presidential palace next door, making it a significant and symbolic action.

Likewise, the destruction of the al-Ikhbariya TV station was less strategic than it was a message. Although it's privately owned, the pro-government station is a poignant symbol of the Assad regime, which tightly controls the inbound and outbound flow of information. Syria prohibits foreign journalists from entering the country -- allegedly with deadly force at times -- and the only source of news comes from the government, which can report whatever they please.

The FSA has not claimed responsibility for the assault on the television station, but a spokesperson from the Syrian National Council (SNC), the political umbrella of the opposition, said that newly defected soldiers from the Republican Guard carried out the attack.

There are dozens of resistance groups in all major Syrian cities, and they do cooperate in some operations sometimes, said Ausama Monajed, the Advisor to the Secretary General of the SNC.

According to the Syrian government, three journalists were executed at the station before it was blown to pieces. Syria's state news agency called the attack a massacre against journalism and the freedom of media and Assad blamed armed terrorists for the assault, as he has for all of the violence in his country.

They are getting capable, Aram Nerguizian, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the rebels. They are getting more external support and they are testing the limits. There is no way the insurgency can combat the elite units, but the elite units cannot be in all places at all times.

The attack on the station might be an indication of where the conflict in Syria is going. Media takeovers are generally one of the first steps taken during an attempted military coup d'état, both for propaganda and practical purposes, and the TV station (attack) ties in with an escalation with opposition tactics, according to Nerguizian.

This is a message to those who craft the Assad regime message. If Assad had distanced himself of the realities [of the conflict], this brings the point home, he said.

One of the first things that the Tuareg rebels did during their coup in Mali earlier this year was seize the state television and radio stations before they launched attacks on the presidential palace. When the army seized control of Guinea-Bissau, the first properties that soldiers took were the ruling party's headquarters and the national radio station, which, along with state television, immediately stopped broadcasting.

But those takeovers were much swifter than anything happening in Syria, and likely more effective than the Syrian rebels will be without international help. The attack on the television station was a message, as was the exploratory attack on the Republican Guard facility, but neither proved that the rebels are ready to take on Assad's elite fighting units head-on.

There are still 200,000 soldiers supporting the Assad regime. You don't have a comparable force on the opposing side. What you have is a highly mobile, lightly armed insurgency, said Nerguizian, whose estimate on the size of Assad's force could be considered conservative.

That mobility is, so far, one of the rebels' great strengths. But the attacks on high profile targets will force Assad to increase security around his power bases, namely Damascus, as well as cities like Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, which will make repeat attacks on high profile targets difficult.

The uptick in violence in Damascus did change the situation on the ground in another way, the significance of which has yet to be determined. For the first time in 16 months, Assad conceded that Syria was in a state of war.

We live in a real state of war from all angles, Assad told his cabinet on Tuesday. When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war.

For the opposition, Assad's sudden declaration changes nothing at all as he has lost all his credibility already, according to Monajed, and the embattled president's statements are of no value or consequence to Syrians and the international community.

But saying that there is a war in Syria does fit in with Assad's narrative that the government is fighting bands of terrorists who, with the help of outside parties like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are targeting the government, as well as peaceful Syrian citizens. His statement is also a response to outside observers who say the situation has deteriorated into a civil war, which neither the regime nor the opposition wants.

There is a war of the government on the people, which borders genocide more than a civil war, said Monajed. A civil war would imply different factions fighting over power, which is not the current scenario -- at least not yet.

There's a big difference between saying Syria is at war and Syria is in a state of civil war, said Nerguizian. Assad is shaping the message: you're either with Syria or you're against Syria. It's to shape perception and shore up the base.

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