Assad has an escape route planned, if the rebels force him from Damascus

The offensive against the regime, which killed part of the president’s inner circle Wednesday, will have profound effects on Syria, Lebanon and Israel

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

In this citizen journalist image, smoke billows over Damascus, Syria, in July (photo credit: AP)
In this citizen journalist image, smoke billows over Damascus, Syria, in July (photo credit: AP)

Wednesday’s Syrian rebel attack in Damascus was planned well in advance, and is part of a larger offensive currently underway in the Syrian capital, representing the greatest threat thus far to the Assad regime. The repercussions of this struggle will have profound effects on Israel’s security situation.

The blast, apparently from a suicide bomber who had access to the top ranks of the insular and suspicious regime, killed Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, the highest ranking Christian in the regime; Assef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and deputy commander of the military; and Hassan Turkmani, military adviser to the foreign minister. Al Jazeera also reported several more blasts in a different region of the capital, near the headquarters of the Fourth Division, Syria’s Republican Guard, controlled by the President’s brother Maher.

These attacks, the most successful targeted killings in 17 months of armed uprising, are part of a larger campaign to pry the president from the Syrian capital.

Colonel Riad al-Assad, the Turkey-based commander of the Free Syrian Army, recently instructed his troops to wage a major offensive in Damascus. “There is no doubt that today’s attack was part of a coordinated effort, planned far in advance, and that it is part of the wider offensive we’ve seen in Damascus over the past three days,” said Dr. Ely Carmon of the International Institute for Counter Terrorism.

Carmon said the attack against the Assad-appointed national security crisis team was an inside job and was reminiscent of the deadly strike against Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel in September 1982 — a bombing that ended the short-lived presidency of the Phalangist leader.

Wednesday’s attacks are part of a string of assassinations.

Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the head of the IDF’s military intelligence, estimated Tuesday that “60 to 70 senior officers” have been killed thus far. In addition, some 13,000 soldiers have broken rank and left the army, including 18 Sunni generals.

“The wheel is turning, and eventually it will lead to the collapse of the regime, but these attacks do not mean that it will all be over tomorrow morning,” Carmon said.

‘A Sunni victory in Syria would change the entire situation in Lebanon,’ said Dr. Mordechai Kedar, an Arab affairs expert at Bar Ilan University. ‘It would lead to complete chaos’

Bashar Assad was Wednesday still believed to be in the capital, in the looming presidential palace; his leaving the area, though, would not mean the end of the conflict. The president has armored brigades and helicopters at his disposal. He would likely relocate to the largely Alawite area along the coast between Latakia and Tartus and the banks of the Orontes River.

Carmon said that in recent weeks he has seen a concerted effort “to purge” those areas of Sunni residents and to create “a sterile zone” for the president’s Alawite sect.

An enclave there would be beneficial for Iran and Hezbollah – offering the former a port to the Mediterranean and Europe and the latter, which has engaged in fighting in the neighboring Tripoli, a territorial link to the Alawite areas.

“A Sunni victory in Syria would change the entire situation in Lebanon,” said Dr. Mordechai Kedar, an Arab affairs expert at Bar Ilan University. “It would lead to complete chaos.” A crumbling of the Syrian regime would ripple into Lebanon.

For Israel, the primary concern is the regime’s chemical weapons.

Syria, one of the few countries in the world that is not a signatory to the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, is believed to have one of the largest stockpiles of mustard gas, sarin and VX. The weapons can be fired from artillery shells and Scud C ballistic missiles.

A CNN report in February said the US military estimated that it would require 75,000 ground troops to secure the weapons. Such a mission would likely be filled by the US, NATO, or Turkish troops. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich) told the National Journal earlier this week that “You have to go into this thinking what if Assad fails? Are we ready? I can’t talk about operation details. But I don’t believe that we’re ready. If the regime were to fall this week, I think we’d be in serious trouble.”

For Israel, the primary concern is the regime’s chemical weapons

Israel would not have a role in securing the weapons on Syrian soil, but Maj. Gen. Kochavi said Tuesday that there was “daily and continuous surveillance” on the strategic weapons.

Carmon estimated that keeping track of those weapons was currently Israel’s number one security prerogative. The only chance for a strike, he said, was if Israel spotted a convoy of weapons moving toward Lebanon or Hizbollah.

In the long term, the IDF believes that destabilization in Syria, which seems to be one of the few certainties in the sectarian state, would lead to a sovereignty void along the Golan Heights and a sharp increase in terror.

Kochavi said Tuesday that IDF believes that a last ditch strike against Israel, as a means of deflecting the incoming fire against Assad, remains “a low probability.”

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