Syria After the Big Bomb: How Long Can the Regime Last?
EVEN by the standards of Syrian state television, the gap between fact and fiction yawned unusually wide on July 15th. With street battles rattling Damascus, the capital, for the first time in Syria’s 17-month uprising, a roaming camera crew struggled to find a picture of reassurance. “Nothing’s happening! Its completely quiet!” a trio of veiled women shouted at the microphone poked through their car window, as gunfire crackled in the background. They seemed anxious to speed off, as did a lone pedestrian waylaid on an eerily deserted boulevard, who briskly agreed that things were “normal—very, very normal”.
In the next few days Syria’s violently flailing regime dropped all such pretence. Even those blind and deaf to the sight of helicopters pumping cannon-fire into residential districts north-east of the city centre, to the whining growl of reptilian armoured cars on its ring road and the crump of mortars in southern suburbs, could not ignore the news, on July 18th, of the biggest blow yet to President Bashar Assad.
That morning a bomb struck a meeting of the regime’s 14-man national security council. The dead included Daoud Rajiha, the minister of defence; Assef Shawkat, Mr Assad’s brother-in-law, a former chief of military intelligence and long-time key security man within the ruling family, who was General Rajiha’s deputy; and Hassan Turkmani, a former defence minister and éminence grise of Syria’s sprawling, 17-agency security establishment. Several other top officials are believed to have been gravely injured, or worse, including the interior minister and Hafez Makhlouf, a cousin of the president notorious as the top interrogator in the state security agency and a brother of Rami Makhlouf, the Assad clan’s billionaire chief financier.
As if the slaughter of Mr Assad’s crisis-management team were not enough, opposition sources claimed that a remote-controlled bomb had been placed inside the meeting room by a personal bodyguard of one of the men, helped by other turncoats from within the nizam, as the regime is known. State media insisted it had been a suicide-bombing, implying that it was the work of a jihadist fanatic.