Damascus Bombing Could Shake Assad Backers Russia and China

This week's killing of key Syrian officials sent a strong message to the regime’s big supporters, namely Russia and China, that the regime is losing its grip over the capital and the heavily protected centers. This may not immediately bring about the government's collapse, argues Rosana Bou Monsef, but it may persuade Russia to accept Assad's departure.

al-monitor A boy holds a sign reading "Russia is the Syrian people's enemy" during a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Sermada near Idlib June 19, 2012. Photo by REUTERS.

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syrian crisis, syria civil war, syria bombing, sergei lavrov, kofi annan, chapter vii, assef shawkat

Jul 19, 2012

Security developments in Syria are changing quickly. The situation will not be the same after the national security building was bombed and after battles moved into the streets of Damascus. This could perhaps mark a turning point — suddenly, the international debate between Western countries and Russia over adopting a Chapter 7 United Nations resolution, imposing international sanctions on the Syrian regime or simply extending the mandate of international representative Kofi Annan and his plan seems like a debate over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The international community awaits further developments on the ground.

According to diplomatic sources, what happened in the last few hours [on July 19] is very significant, even though there are questions about the importance of the officials who were killed in the bombing and their “true” positions within the regime, as opposed to their official titles. In other words, it is still unclear how close they were to the decision-making center, which may or may not be shaking now. Some doubt whether Assef Shawkat was killed in yesterday’s [July 18] bombing or at an earlier incident, when he was rumored to have been poisoned. There are also doubts whether Hafez Makhlouf was among those killed yesterday.

Nevertheless, what happened sent a strong message in several ways, despite the fact that the bombing was not enough to bring down the regime or cause serious damage, regardless of the targets’ importance. Primarily, it was a strong message to the regime’s global supporters, namely Russia and China. The message is that the regime is losing its grip over the capital and the heavily protected centers. If the regime is unable to protect its key officials, then this means that it has an irreversible weakness. According to sources, yesterday’s bombing and the street battles raging in the Syrian capital may turn out to be the decisive factor in convincing Russia to change its position. Just two days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — before his meeting with UN envoy Kofi Annan — declared that the Syrian president will not leave, and that he still enjoys the support of a large portion of the Syrian population.

In light of the recent turn of events, Russia may wish to avoid being the main loser by having supported the regime till the last minute. Thus Russia may propose an exit for the regime, considering that the war is now in the heart of Damascus and that Assad has not only lost control of most of the country but is defending his regime’s last and most important stronghold, the capital. Russia may also propose a formula to implement what was agreed upon at the Geneva meeting with regard to forming a transitional government. This clearly will not happen easily, but only as a result of a change of conditions on the ground that would force the regime to accept what it has previously refused. The problem now is neither a Chapter 7 resolution nor the Annan plan, most of whose terms are no longer valid in light of the developments on the ground.

Sources said that the bombing that targeted the security officials broke the regime’s fundamental pillars. But that does not mean that the regime will collapse in the coming hours or days. Yet the regime’s collapse is inevitable due to important symbolic defections, such as that of the military commander Manaf Tlass and Ambassador Nawaf Fares. The significance of these defections is that Sunni officials are beginning to remove the Sunni cover of the regime. President Bashar al-Assad and his father have relied on that cover for 40 years, but the regime is now experiencing defections at the highest levels.

As the battles move onto the streets of Damascus, the regime will have difficulty adopting the same military tactics that it has used for other cities and villages, such as artillery bombardment. If the regime fails to drive the rebels from the capital’s streets within days, then it is virtually finished. In such a case, it may prefer to negotiate a way out for itself through a transitional phase before the situation worsens. The coming days will be decisive in more ways than one.

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