For many Syrians this is the beginning of the end.
It might be a premature assessment but the explosion in Damascus, the capital, on Wednesday has dealt president Bashar al-Assad’s regime one of its most severe blows on many levels. Symbolically, physiologically and practically.
What we know so far is that the explosion happened inside a conference room where senior security and government officials were meeting.
In Damascus, it’s called the crisis cell – the gathering place for key officials who are in charge of managing the situation on the ground.
The blast targeted security leaders who had the final say on how the government responds to the protest movement and the armed confrontations with fighters. These are the high ranking officials who have the president’s ears.
They are the ones who implement Assad’s vision.
Regardless of who will replace them, it cannot be anything but a severe blow to the president to lose his defence minister, deputy defence minister, brother in law, interior minister, deputy vice president and his top intelligence people. Some of these men were killed, while others were seriously injured.
Physiologically and symbolically, it’s a huge blow as well.
When the uprising started many thought it was only a matter of weeks or months before the regime would crumble. But it survived, and Syrians started to prepare themselves for a long battle. The president and the regime proved strong, defiant and immune to pressure from the Syrian street and the international community.
But when an explosion like this happens in the upscale Al-Rawda neighborhood, only a ten minute walk from where president Assad lives, in neighboring Al-Maliki, when his inner circle is reachable by armed fighters, when Assef Shawkat, one of the most feared men in Syria is killed, the image of a powerful regime evaporates. Today, the regime looks weak, and vulnerable, not immune.
The explosion was obviously an insider’s job; explosives were planted in the meeting room. Whoever had access to the meeting room, whoever knew about the meeting, would have been someone who had won the trust of the government. A former loyalist must have struck at the heart of the Syrian regime, despite the faith that was put into him by the state.
This will only add to the government’s paranoia.
Members of Assad’s cabal are probably wondering: who will be next amongst the loyalists to switch sides? Everyone will become a suspect, adding tension and aggravation inside the pro-regime camp.
Assef Shawkat, president Assad’s brother in law and deputy defense minister, is seen a strong man who always played a pivotal role in protecting the Assad house, including during the years of the late president Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s al-Assad’s father.
More and more people will try to jump from what is now looking more and more like a sinking ship.
If the attack was the work of an organised group, then it shows how the armed opposition has grown stronger, and how its attacks have become more effective.
If this was the work of one or more individuals, who got fed up with government killings it is still significant because it shows that the level of resentment and defiance has reached new highs.
In the coming days, the government will try to prove all these points wrong and will probably unleash more force in its fight against the armed rebels.
If Wednesday’s explosion doesn’t lead to a major shift in the battle over who controls the ground, it will definitely mark a turning point in the level of violence that the country will see in the coming days.