Syrian rebels step closer to victory

The road to Damascus had been the Syrian opposition’s most difficult journey. Now, after one decisive and deadly strike, the world’s oldest capital appears within reach.

As the dust settled at the national security building on Wednesday, a transformation unthinkable only hours earlier was under way. Three of the regime’s leaders lay dead around the table where they had been holding a weekly crisis meeting: the deputy defence minister, Assef Shawkat, the defence minister, Dawoud Rajha, and the military committee leader, Hassan Turkmani – all key figures in the Middle East’s most ruthlessly efficient police state.

Of the three, Shawkat had long been the main target. His influence and power had been unmatched since the popular uprising began nearly 17 months ago. Shawkat was, as Syrian rebels like to say, the keeper of the secrets.

Every strategic decision about the crackdown carried out by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that had steadily morphed into full-blown war had passed across his desk. He was an essential part of the inner sanctum. In many eyes, he was a symbol of its infallibility.

Within minutes of the assassinations the regime had acknowledged the deaths – an unusual event in a police state that has been reluctant to admit setbacks throughout the uprising.

Battling regime
The announcement, made first through Hezbollah’s television ­station in Lebanon then confirmed by the state television in Syria, electrified Damascus, where rebel groups had been battling regime troops, who had been considered to be the capital’s staunchest defenders, for three days.

Some of the units regarded as “die-hards” immediately swapped sides, according to activists and residents in Damascus. Others are reported to have abandoned their tanks and fled.

The reaction was the same in all the hot spots. A video posted on the internet showed hundreds of men defecting in Homs. Another appeared to show cars streaming out of Aleppo to reinforce the rebels.

In Idlib province, envoys from opposition villages travelled to pro-regime enclaves and implored them to join the revolution. The mood, bleak and full of foreboding only last week as shortages and the siege began to take hold, was reported to be euphoric. Shawkat’s death, in particular, seemed to strike a chord among loyalists and rebels alike.

The coming days, however, will give a sense of whether the rebel gains can be sustained or consolidated. To get from this point to outright control of Damascus, as opposed to the bragging rights they now have in some areas, will need a continued momentum.

Damascus has seen empires rise and fall. Throughout the four decades of the Assad regime, it has been central to some of the Middle East’s most defining moments. But in recent years it has seen few more important days than this.

The opposition is still reeling from what it managed to do on Wednesday. The quest to finish the job is not entirely its own.

Whether the deaths of the strongmen can bring the masses around will determine whether this is indeed the beginning of the end – or the start of something far worse. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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