Assad is a Lonely Man

Following the Damascus terror attack that killed top Syrian officials, the Israeli defense leadership held an urgent meeting to discuss possible scenarios concerning Syria and its influence on Israel, writes Ben Caspit. One thing is clear, most of Assad's inner-circle is gone and the clock is ticking on his life. 

al-monitor A Syrian national flag bearing a portrait of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al Hariri.

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terrorism, military intervention, leakage, chemical weapons, wmd, us, syria, kurds, jordan, israel, iran, idf, hezbollah, damascus, assad

Jul 23, 2012

Bashar al-Assad is history. The only question left is whether we are going to see his corpse dragged along in the streets of Damascus, the way [former Libyan dictator] Muammar Gadhafi ended up, or if he may still somehow manage to escape at the last minute like [deposed] Tunisian president Ben Ali. With every passing day, the chances that Assad will succeed in arranging a plea bargain and a convenient asylum somewhere are rapidly diminishing.

It could be that he has decided to fight to the bitter end, to the very last moment, and he may be well aware that the last moment is not too far off. No one can really understand what is going on in the feverish, troubled brain of dictators on the eve of their fall from power. The suicide bombing on July 18 at the nerve center of the innermost headquarters of Assad's junta is a tie-break event that fundamentally changes the state of affairs on the battleground. From now on, it is only a question of time.

The eyes of the entire international community — and that isn't a hyperbole — are currently on the goings-on in Damascus. The Israel Defense Forces' Intelligence Branch held discussions on the July 18 events in an attempt to decide whether what we are witness to is "the battle in Damascus" or rather "the battle for Damascus." The question was answered in no time: It is the battle for Damascus — no doubt about it. The suicide bombing at the Syrian "National Security Bureau" (the equivalent of the Israeli security cabinet, less a prime minister) that wiped out Assad's top echelon of close associates (first and foremost, Assad's all-powerful brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat, who was married to the redoubtable Bushra Assad, widely feared throughout Syria) followed 48 hours of blood and fire in the Syrian capital, right in Bashar Assad's backyard. It was no accidental, unplanned fighting. It was Assad's fight for his home.

Those killed and wounded in the suicide attack, which is reminiscent in a certain sense of "Operation Valkyrie", the 1944]plot by German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler, are members of the "gang of eight" — the highest ranking team in the Syrian security establishment, which has been dealing with the crisis and revolution from day one. It seems that Assad has now been left with virtually no loyal close associates, as assessed in Israel following the suicide bombing. Two loyalists of Assad who have been spared are Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, and Maher Assad, the younger brother of Bashar Assad and the commander of the Syrian army's (still) loyal Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guard. The two are more or less what's left of Assad's inner circle. He has no other operators that he can rely on, ones that he may confidently send into the battlefield and that, he can be sure, would not stab him in the back. Assad is a lonely man. He is on his own now in burning Damascus. And it isn't his rule of the country that he is fighting for any more, but rather his very life.

Far more complicated and far more dangerous

Given the current state of affairs, we are at present in a most sensitive phase of the events. We observe it anew over and over again, every time an Arab dictator is about to lose power, at the point when he is already with his back to the wall. We have not forgotten yet the last twilight days of Saddam Hussein. Then, too, there were fears in Israel that [like Samson at the time, who called: 'Let me die with the Philistines!']  the Iraqi tyrant, facing his own end, would take advantage of the last moments his hand was still holding the trigger to throw at us the deadliest of his missiles.

With Assad, it is far more complicated and far more dangerous. In the discussions held July 18 at the IDF's General Staff Forum, led by the Chief of the General Staff, three potential scenarios were suggested for the next few days in Syria: According to the first, there will be no radical change in the situation other than further escalation. In other words, we will see more killings and more defectors [from the Syrian army] and the bloody war will rage on. Given this scenario, Israel will naturally go on closely watching the events as a passive spectator. Under the second scenario, the Assad regime will fall apart and the opposition will take control over the bastions of power, including the arsenals of strategic weaponry and weapons of mass destruction. In this case, too, Israel will maintain its passive stance.

And if you wonder about the third scenario, well, this is the really alarming one. In this case, too, there are three levels [of potentially dangerous developments]. On the first level, strategic and chemical-biological weapons will spill over from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The second option is the takeover of these arsenals of weaponry by global Jihad elements (whose presence and activity in Syria have been significantly stepped up recently). The third possibility (which is deemed quite unlikely) is that some of these weapons will be directed against Israel. Be that as it may, under any of these scenarios, Israel will have to make a decision and in any case, it is not going to be an easy decision.

It is at this point that the international community enters the picture. The Americans, as well as the Russians, the Iranians, the Lebanese and the Turks and, in their wake, all other centers of power in the world are well aware of the explosive nature of the situation. A convoy of trucks carrying a load of chemical missiles or any other variation of the deadly arms in those arsenals, crossing the border from Syria to Lebanon at night, under the cloak of darkness, is liable to trigger an immediate Israeli attack. We faced similar situations in the past. However, we were astute enough then to move cautiously and hold fire. This time around, the situation is totally different. This time, it's for real. In this case, an offensive [military] operation against a target like that one could put the entire region on fire in no time at all. Iran is waiting for just such an opportunity. Hezbollah is all set for action. It is a highly volatile, explosive and shaky situation as it is. Those who have to make the decision should not be envied, and we can only hope that the underpinning system designed to prepare them for the challenge will neutralize the background noise and the fears.

Dispute over terminology

The United States has been extensively active on the Middle Eastern front in the past few weeks. The Americans have reinforced their presence in the region, and their special elite units have already received the relevant instructions. In the countries surrounding Syria there has also been quite a lot of activity lately and preparations are made there for potential intervention on the part of the West, led by the United States, in case they are forced to promptly react to one of the alarming options described above.In such an event, American-Israeli cooperation, and perhaps even collaboration between other concerned parties may be expected.

Just now, Jordanian King Abdullah is visiting the United States, and it's a sure guess that he is discussing with U.S. President Barack Obama these very issues. For the time being, the Israeli Chief of General Staff has ordered the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to maintain a low profile. The Intelligence system is on high alert, on all fronts and with all means, the way it has not been for long years. So far, no IDF reserve forces have been mobilized and no troops moved forward. However, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has raised the alert level and those at the helm are routinely and frequently evaluating the situation.

At the same time, the other powers playing a part in the bloody game in Syria should also be closely monitored, primarily the Iranians, who have significant forces deployed in Syria, most of them of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. In fact, it is the Iranian support that has enabled Assad to keep his head above water in the last months. If they start returning their forces back home, it will be a sign that the game is over. If we see movement of [Iranian] forces in the opposite direction, it will be an indication that it is going to be much worse. As to Hezbollah, the same holds true for the Islamic militant movement. Hezbollah operatives are roaming all over Syria, attending to their own business. They too are in a standby position, awaiting developments. Last but not least are the Russians, the only allies Assad still has. Generally, they know when is the right time to back off and withdraw. Let's hope they have already identified that moment.

Meanwhile, the only dispute is over terminology. Is it the beginning of the end of the Ba'ath regime in Syria or are we already at the height of its disintegration, midway to its ultimate collapse? And what is in store next? As is usually the case, no one can tell. It could end with the dissolution of Syria into separate cantons (with the Kurds in the north, the Alawis [the minority group of Assad’s clan] along the coastline, the Sunnis in the center of the country, the Druze around Jabal al-Druze [in southern Syria], and so on and so forth). It could also lead to an Iraqi scenario (in which case we may yet long for Assad).And it could also give rise to a central Sunni-Alawi regime set up under some sort of an arrangement. The fact that all this is happening when the entire international community is doing its best to calm down Israel and urge it not to attack Iran in the coming months complicates matters even more. The scorching heat of the last few days is liable to seem like welcome cool European weather considering what is still awaiting us further down the line.

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