18 July 2012

The Significance of the Syrian Suicide Bomb

As you probably know by now, a suicide bomber managed to get inside the National Security Building and killed three members of Bashar al-Assad's inner circle.
Defence minister General Daoud Rajha and Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat were killed and interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security, were wounded, the channel and security officials said.
I have seen many breathless reporting about how this signals the end of the regime and how this should be marked as a turning point.

I am not so sure that this event presages the imminent collapse of the regime. While it is a major coup for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) they are still no match for the relatively formidable firepower and manpower of the Syrian Armed Forces.

The event, however, is significant in one respect. If the suicide bomber is (as it was reported early on) one of the bodyguards of these officials, I will have to assume that he was one of the thousands of Sunnis integrated into the power structure. Just like General Manaf Tlas who defected ten days ago.

If that was the case, this event signals that the current situation has now become an entirely sectarian conflict. If you remember the Bosnian civil war, even people who were sympathetic to the positions of the other side (or were linked to them through marriage, jobs and other social arrangements) had to choose a side quickly and then they were locked in to that identity for the duration of the conflict (and even beyond).

If a Sunni bodyguard was involved in this suicide bombing, it would mean that a highly trained and thoroughly vetted member of an elite force could now be turned by the lure of a primordial identity. It would indicate that someone who was not previously interested in that part of his identity was now suggestible enough to take his own life to harm what he perceives as "the other side."

That is bad news for al-Assad and the Alewites in Syria.

It is also bad news for the regime in general as it will force them to react to this catastrophic incident. And they have no good options.

One thing they might have to do is to purge the power structure of Sunnis. After Manaf Tlas and this bodyguard they would be fools not to do it. Such a move would inevitably enhance the sectarian nature of the conflict as loyal Sunnis, who served the Alewite minority for decades would find themselves sidelined and thrown under the bus in the middle of a civil war.

Expect mass defections if that happens.

Secondly, the regime might feel obligated to show that it has the upper hand militarily and might do something as reckless as carpet bomb several Sunni strongholds to kill thousands of civilians and ask their Shahiba militias to massacre a few hundred people.

Unfortunately for them, either of these moves would inevitably strengthen the sectarian identities and sharpen the dividing lines between warring factions. And Sunnis outnumber other minorities and they have the backing of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Conversely, not doing any of these things might be perceived as a sign of weakness by the other side and could embolden them and the foreign forces behind them.

In other words, in my opinion, today's bombing was significant not because it killed a couple of senior Bashar allies. It was significant because it might force Bashar's hand to act in a way that would hasten his own demise.

Stay tuned.


The FSA now claims that the blast was caused by a remote controlled device (instead of a suicide bomber) which was put in place the day before.

If this is true, it strengthens my point further, as such a setup would require extensive assistance from inside. The location and timing of the meeting had to be communicated. The bomb had to be smuggled into the building. And the device had to be planted and armed.

All of this would imply a major inside job involving several people. And Bashar al-Assad's equally unpalatable choices would remain the same.

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