By Bassem Mroue
The Syrian regime appears to have absorbed the shock it suffered in the heaviest blow against it yet in Syria’s 17-month-old upheaval — a bombing that killed four top aides.
The blast raised opponents’ hopes President Bashar Assad could fall soon. Instead he is back on the offensive and has reshuffled his inner circle of loyalists to brace for a long battle in what has become an outright civil war.
Although the president is embattled, he remains surrounded by loyal generals, many who are inextricably tied to the regime and have played a key role in the brutal crackdown against the opposition.
He has already made some progress on the ground. A counter-offensive by the government is gaining momentum and troops have so far been able to recapture neighborhoods in the capital Damascus that rebels overran earlier this month. The government also launched an offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, where rebels have taken over several areas.
Regime forces have stepped up the use of force. Helicopter gunships have been used more than ever before in the battles with rebels in Damascus and Aleppo. Also this week, warplanes flew over Aleppo, although it was not possible to confirm claims by activists that the fighter jets actually fired on rebels — which would be a first since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
A Syrian who fled to Lebanon this week said the regime forces’ attacks have intensified.
“Whenever they suspect there is an area where there are (rebel) gunmen, they destroy it,” said the man who identified himself as Fawaz and said he had come from the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising began.
Still, the past weeks have shown that the rebels — a mix of army defectors and regime opponents who have taken up arms — are getting more experienced and sophisticated. That points to Syria’s conflict, which anti-regime activists say has already left 19,000 dead, getting even bloodier as both sides try to finish the other by force.
“Syria will get much worse before it gets any better. Assad might fall but he will do his darndest to leave behind a burned down country,” said Bilal Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “There will be tactical advances and retreats by both, but time and momentum seems to be on the rebels’ side.”
Assad has suffered a series of setbacks over the past weeks. On July 18, rebels detonated a bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus that killed the defense minister, the head of the National Security Bureau, Assad’s brother-in-law and a former defense minister — some of Assad’s most trusted officers.
At the same time, the rebel Free Syrian Army was waging its most brazen offensive yet in Damascus, taking over several neighborhoods and sparking the heaviest and most sustained battles in the capital. They also rose up in Aleppo, which throughout the conflict has been a pillar of support for Assad’s regime and has seen little opposition activity. The rebels took at least four border points with Turkey and Iraq.
Moreover, one of his confidants and longtime friends, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, defected and said Thursday he will work to unite the opposition against the regime. Several diplomats also defected, including the ambassador to Iraq and the former envoy to the United Arab Emirates.
But the regime is bouncing back. It took several days, but troops took back control in Damascus. Regime forces have been battling rebels in Aleppo for days.
On the day of the bombing, the regime made clear it would strike back hard. Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi appeared on state TV and warned that the state had not even begun to use its full firepower yet, adding that “92 percent of our forces are still in their barracks.”
Despite the losses from the bombing, the president is still surrounded by loyal generals who will continue the crackdown. His innermost circle is made up of the heads of the four powerful intelligence agencies, which keep a pervasive hold on the country, and his younger brother, Maher, who commands the elite 4th Division as well as the Republican Guards in charge of protecting the capital.
On Tuesday, Assad carried out a reshuffle that further tightened his core of loyalists.
In the most significant move, he activated the national security council, a body officially created two years ago but dormant since. The council’s role is to coordinate between the four intelligence agencies and compile information from them, presumably to make them more cohesive in fighting the rebellion.
To head the council, Assad promoted the chief of his general intelligence directorate, Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk. Already one of the regime’s most important figures, Mamlouk’s new role gives him even more influence.
Notably, he is a Sunni, one of the few in the top leadership dominated by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. Sunnis have formed the backbone of the uprising against Assad and a number of Sunni army generals have defected to the rebellion. But the promotion signals Assad’s deep trust of Mamlouk, whose longtime insider status and role in fighting the opposition the past 17 months inextricably tie him to the regime.
The head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Qudsiyeh, was made the security council’s deputy head. A senior military intelligence general was elevated to take his place.
The head of another of the four intelligence agencies, the Political Security Department — Maj. Gen. Deeb Zeitoun, also a Sunni — was moved over to lead the General Intelligence Directorate, replacing Mamlouk.
To fill in Zeitoun’s now empty position, Assad brought in loyalist Maj. Gen. Rostom Ghazali from his job as security chief for the Damascus suburbs, which has been a battleground with rebels for months. Previously, as Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazali was a key enforcer of Syria’s then-direct domination over its smaller neighbor, which lasted for 29 years until 2005.
The head of the fourth intelligence agency, air force intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Jamil Hassan, apparently remained in his post.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said the reshuffle is “part of the regime’s build-up.”
“Either Syria with himself as a leader or no Syria: He is going to the end in this direction,” Khashan said. “Those around Assad today are those who linked their fate to him. They either go up or down with him.”