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The Endgame in Syria

Assad's Bloody Battle to Cling to Power

President Bashar Assad is losing his grip on power in Syria and he has responded by visiting death and destruction on his opponents. With momentum shifting in favor of the rebels, he seems capable only of intensifying the violence.

Tuesday, 7/24/2012   02:46 PM

It's become very quiet. The cicadas and the birds have been silenced, and all you can hear is the sound of the wind rustling through the trees -- only occasionally interrupted by the clattering of tattered metal shutters and signs riddled with bullet holes. But human voices, the sound of cars and all the other sounds one associates with a city are gone.

In there place is a sporadic, high-pitched buzzing noise that approaches and then passes overhead. Sometimes, though, you don't even get that much warning before the roar of an explosion rips the air and the ground shakes half a kilometer away. It happens again and again, 20 times, 150 times, even 550 times a day. Each time, 50 kilograms (110 lbs.) of steel and explosives blast apart walls, decimate buildings and send showers of shrapnel into the air, ripping apart all surrounding life.

This is Rastan.

It was once a city of 55,000, set in an idyllic part of central Syria, between hills and a reservoir, almost exactly halfway between Homs and Hama.

Today Rastan is an inferno under siege, under attack from all sides by tanks, mortars and rocket launchers. All major access roads are closed. The mosques are riddled with artillery holes, and entire blocks have been reduced to rubble. Streetlights hang at bizarre angles between crumbled walls. A wholesale bakery that supplied the entire city was destroyed by shells months ago, the two water towers have been shot to pieces, and last week the last major food warehouse was struck by artillery fire and burned for a day and a half.

No one could have anticipated that Rastan would become a center of the resistance against the dictatorship of President Bashar Assad and his family. Rastan native Mustafa Tlass, who became the Syrian defense minister four decades ago and held that position for 32 years, turned the town into an elite training center for Sunni officers. About a fifth of the entire officers' corps comes from Rastan -- they may not be in the upper echelons, but there are many of them.

A Kind of Paralysis

Understanding Rastan is critical to knowing why this revolution has eaten its way so relentlessly through the country. The protest marches in Rastan were small and peaceful at first. As in other parts of the country, they were also brutally suppressed, first with clubs and then with guns. The residents of Rastan took up arms more quickly than those of other cities. The young officers, the sons of Rastan, were among the first to begin the armed resistance against the regime.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 people still live in the inferno of Rastan. All others have either been killed or have fled. But now that even the surrounding area has come under bombardment -- and regime troops have begun shooting people at their checkpoints on the outskirts of town for no apparent reason, a kind of paralysis has taken hold in Rastan.

Some endure out of defiance, sitting on chairs in front of their houses and saying that no one and nothing will drive them away. Others seem afraid to go anywhere at all, refusing to move so much as a meter, no matter how great the danger becomes. An old civil servant, for example, is sitting in the midst of piles of light gray rubble and claims that he wants to go to Homs soon, the equally devastated, almost completely inaccessible provincial capital. He says he wants to pick up his pay, which he hasn't received in seven months, and yet he hardly dares to leave his house anymore.

Staying in Rastan is madness. But the other madness, namely that a regime has declared war on its own cities, is spreading throughout Syria. It first affected Homs and Rastan, followed by Talbisa, a town between the two cities. Wherever Assad's troops encounter too much resistance, neighborhoods, villages and entire areas are then bombarded from a distance or from the air. Every change in the targeting of artillery triggers new waves of refugees, who are being driven from town to town, as afraid of moving as they are of staying in one place.

A great tension has descended on Syria. On the one hand, the regime remains militarily in control of almost the entire country, at least to the extent that it can strike anywhere at any time. On the other hand, it seems as if just a small jolt could lead to the collapse of the regime now that it's become clear that nothing can stop this rebellion.

A Fateful Explosion

That jolt may very well have come last Wednesday. An explosion shook the building that houses the National Security Council, in the expensive Damascus neighborhood of Maliki, where the Assad family lived until the uprising began. The bomb doesn't appear to have been particularly powerful, but its political impact was immense. The explosion put an end to a meeting among senior regime officials responsible for leading the war against the insurgency; it killed Assef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and his top military commander, the defense minister and another top official. The interior minister may also have died in the blast, though the Assad regime insists he was merely wounded. Tellingly, the one person who wasn't at the meeting was President Bashar Assad himself.

Hours later, the group "Liwa al-Islam," or Battalion of Islam, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The regime, for its part, said that a bodyguard had committed a suicide bombing. Although this would seem to make sense at first glance, given the name of the group, Liwa al-Islam disputes the government's version. According to a man who has long known the group, it was not a Sunni suicide bomber "but a Christian tradesman who placed the explosives." This is impossible to prove, and the notion that a Christian would help a group like Liwa al-Islam doesn't sound particularly convincing. Still, the story matches with Assad family's preference for relying on Christians or Alawites in sensitive areas rather than on Sunnis.

According to the source, repairs had to be made a month and a half ago to the suspended ceiling in the conference room where the group regularly met, a space about four by five meters in size (215 square feet). "When the tradesman received the job," reports the source, "he got in touch with Liwa al-Islam," which is loosely aligned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He placed explosives among the cables in the ceiling space, the source said. Then, the source went on, another informant from within the Syrian security council kept the group updated and reported when senior regime officials were going to meet there again -- which is why, he said, it took so long before the attack was perpetrated. The group didn't want to kill innocents, he said: "We aren't terrorists." The source says that the tradesman was out of the country within hours of the explosion but that his hometown must remain secret nonetheless: "Otherwise, they will destroy it."

In the days after the bombing, Assad began deploying tanks, helicopters and rockets in his own capital. And this week, bloody urban warfare has flared up in several quarters of Damascus. Still, the regime seems to be holding on to power in Damascus and central Syria.

'They Will Use Everything'

But its power appears to be disintegrating on the edges of the country. Troops stationed along the border with Israel have been ordered back to Damascus. Last Thursday, military personnel at two major border crossings to Turkey left their posts. The biggest border crossing to Iraq, at Abu Kamal, is also in rebel hands. Local residents and the FSA now control two sections of Aleppo, the commercial capital in the north, which had long remained quiet.

The final phase has begun. The regime will fall. But it isn't clear whether this will take days or weeks, or whether the crumbling of the regime's power along the edges will only lead to increased brutality in the center. It also isn't clear whether the predictions of Abu Bashar, a former intelligence agent from Rastan who defected to the FSA, will come true. He said, based on his long-standing and in-depth knowledge of the regime: "They will use everything they have if they go down. Everything!"

It was a sentiment seemingly underlined just days later, when a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman this week openly threatened that the Assad regime may use chemical weapons. He claimed that such weapons would never be used inside the country, he insisted, but warned they might become an option if Syria is "exposed to external aggression." According to regime propaganda, however, such aggression is already well underway. Since the beginning of the revolution, state-controlled media have consistently blamed the insurgency on "terrorists" and on an "international conspiracy." US President Barack Obama has warned Assad not to commit a "tragic mistake," but thus far all such warnings from abroad have fallen on deaf ears in Damascus.

Syria is estimated to have one of the world's largest arsenals of chemical weapons, including tons of Sarin, mustard gas and the nerve agent VX. It also has rockets with which it could disperse the toxic gas across a range of several hundred kilometers.

It's a scenario that has the Israelis especially concerned. Speaking at the occupied Golan Heights last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pointed out that he could hear the echoes of the fighting between the government and the opposition. "The breakup of the regime is by no means abstract," he warned. "It's real, and it's getting closer."

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