Syrian security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad pounded rebel hideouts in Damascus today in retaliation for the blast that killed three top anti- insurgency leaders.
The troops used helicopters and heavy artillery against the rebels, while snipers took up positions on rooftops on the outskirts of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. “Explosions are heard throughout the capital,” it said.
“The regime has gone mad,” Rima Flaihan, spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, said in a telephone interview today from Jordan. “The regime is in a horrid state of savagery, seeking revenge for the killings of the military leaders.”
At least 77 people were killed across Syria today, including 38 people in Damascus and its suburbs, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail. It said at least 130 people were killed in the shelling of a funeral yesterday in the Sayyeda Zainab area on the outskirts of Damascus.
Al Arabiya television aired footage today of fighters of the Free Syrian Army taking over the town of Manbej near the border with Turkey. It showed people tearing down pictures of Assad. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said local opposition groups are now in control of the town of Kawkabani in Aleppo Province, also near the border.
Yesterday’s blast targeted members of Assad’s military establishment as they met at the national security headquarters in Damascus. Three people were killed, according to state-run media: Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat; Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah; and the vice president’s military adviser, Hasan Turkmani. Other officials including the interior minister were injured, state television said. Shawkat served as deputy defense minister and deputy chief of staff for security.
They were the most senior officials to die since the uprising began in March 2011. Assad has not made a public appearance or comment since the attack. State media have not aired footage of the attack as is customary when such bombings occur.
The attack was a “tremendous blow” to the Syrian regime, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in an interview with CNN, according to the state-run Petra news agency. “Although this is a blow, I’m sure the regime will continue to show fortitude in the near future.”
“I think as we continue to pursue the political option, the realities on the ground may have overtaken us,” he said. “Therefore, I think the clock is ticking. I think we should continue to give politics its due, but if we haven’t already passed that window, I think we’re getting very close” to a civil war.
Yesterday’s blast “makes clear” that the 46-year-old Assad is losing control of the country, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. The international community has been powerless to stop the rising death toll in an insurgency that has reached Damascus, where security forces have battled rebels for the past four days.
Opposition groups have reported the defection of scores of military personnel following the attack. Syria’s Information Ministry dismissed such reports in a statement yesterday, saying their aim is to demoralize Syrians.
Not on Track
“It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days is a testimony to that,” said Major-General Robert Mood, commander of the United Nations observer mission in Syria.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron again called on Assad to leave power. “The message to President Assad is: It is time for transition, it is time for you to go,” Cameron said today in the Afghan capital, Kabul. When asked if he had a message for Syrian ally Russia, he said: “It’s time for the UN Security Council to pass clear and tough messages about sanctions and be unambiguous in this.”
“This is very much the beginning of the end for Assad,” Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said in a telephone interview. “This was an extremely professional operation by the rebels and a big blow.”
The Security Council is due to vote today on a new resolution threatening Syria with non-military sanctions unless Assad complies with a UN peace plan that so far has failed to quell the violence. A vote was postponed for another bout of diplomacy yesterday.
Russia, which has twice blocked measures against its Soviet-era ally, has signalled it is again unwilling to concede. Responding to the blasts, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that “the UN has no business here.” A vote is scheduled for 10 a.m. in New York.
Russia has backed itself into a corner, and now its best option is to offer Assad asylum, according to George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator.
“Lavrov could not be clearer: Let events take their course,” said Lopez, who teaches at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, spoke yesterday on the phone and “noted the differences” in their approaches to Syria, according to a White House statement that highlighted the current stalemate.
With little sign of a breakthrough at the UN, Assad’s fate is being decided on the Syrian streets.
Rebel fighters, mostly armed with light weapons, have been pushing into the capital this week and battling government forces armed with tanks, artillery and attack helicopters.
The fighters are mostly led by Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of Syria’s population. Assad and many of his top officials come from the country’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that stands to lose privileges, property and even lives if his regime falls.
The Free Syrian Army, a loose collection of deserters and armed youths, claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack.
“The person who carried out the operation is in a safe place now, and he is a person very close to the regime,” Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera. “It was not a suicide mission, just explosives that were placed in a small room.”
Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest cities, had until recently been spared the worst of the violence as the army shelled towns in mainly Sunni areas such as Homs and Hama.
“Recent clashes in the capital reflect a major improvement in the military and intelligence capabilities of opposition forces, and are most likely to prove a prelude to broader political and military defections, particularly among the Sunni community,” said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst for the Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk.
They don’t signal the imminent collapse of the government, as “Assad’s Alawite-dominated elite forces remain coherent,” he said in an e-mailed comment.
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