Sam Dagher at the Wall Street Journal has identified the July 18, 2012, bombing, which killed four senior Assad regime officials, most seriously Assef Shawkat, as the turning point in Syria, reversing the rebellion’s momentum, bringing the scale of the killing above where it had been before, closing the ranks of the minorities around the regime, and opening the country up to Iran.
Dagher certainly has the timing correct. It was the late summer, and most noticeably the fall of 2012, when the death toll in Syria markedly increased. 5,000 people had been killed in all of 2011, and another 5,000 by May 2012. By September 2012, 30,000 people were dead, the kill-rate now reaching 5,000-per-month. By January 2013, 60,000 people were dead, a kill-rate of 10,000-per-month. Nobody really knows what the total, let alone the rate, is now, but this was when it spiked. This period is also concurrent with the massive operation mounted by Clerical Iran to rescue the Bashar dictatorship.
Given how beneficial this bombing was to the regime, there have long been rumours it was an inside job. A recent report by Naame Shaam said exactly this, that this was an Iranian-orchestrated counter-intelligence operation to snuff-out the softliners within the regime who were trying to reach a deal with the protesters and rebels inside the country and their Gulf Arab patrons, which would have involved some concessions from the regime on its absolute control.
Dagher presents the evidence from “[t]wo dozen people, including past and current regime officials, opposition leaders, activists and rebels, and politicians in neighboring countries with ties to Mr. Assad.” These include Walid Jumblatt and Manaf Tlass, who defected two weeks before the bombing when six explosive devices were found outside Tlass’ office on a base in Damascus. A crucial claim from Tlass is that Qassem Suleimani was in Damascus at the time of the bombing, which would support Naame Shaam’s timeline. An opposition activist, now in Turkey, says the rebels couldn’t have done this: “If you asked me then, I would have lied to you and told you, ‘Our heroic rebels did it.’ But now I can tell you, ‘No, we were amateurs back then’.”
The primary target—whoever did this—was, of course, Assef Shawkat, married to Assad’s sister, who “had previously headed Military Intelligence—one of Syria’s most feared institutions—and commanded a loyal group of officers.” Within the dreaded inner circles of the regime, Shawkat had reach into the two most important: the very core of the family that owns Syria, which includes Bashar’s mother Anissa, thought of by many Syrians as “a combination between Lady MacBeth and Connie Corleone,” Bashar’s brother Maher, and the Makhloufs; and the circle around them comprising the security barrons and intelligence chiefs. Shawkat was also the regime’s most senior overseer of the relationship with Iran/Hizballah and al-Qaeda/Islamic State. If there was a rival within the regime, someone whom the military-intelligence establishment—which thinks Bashar bungled the response to the uprising—was eyeing up as a successor it was Shawkat, probably with some role for Maher, providing a motive for the dictator to neutralise him.
Tlass says that he and Shawkat “were among those calling for talks with both peaceful and armed regime opponents,” which buttresses the claim that the 2012 bombing was the regime/Iran shutting down the softliners in the elite. This is rather at odds, however, with the record of these two men. In a meeting with one of Syria’s most distinguished dissidents, Ammar Abdulhamid, Shawkat said: “we will burn [Syria] down rather than give it up.” This was in 2005. Perhaps Shawkat had a change of heart in the meantime, but it does seem unlikely.
While it may be less likely that Shawkat was eliminated as a softliner, it is not impossible to imagine that he was removed as Iran moved in to combat the external threat in order to ensure that there was no regime collapse trigger by internal dissent. Regardless, in its effects, this bombing certainly helped the regime. At the very moment the regime seemed to be reeling, with both major cities ablaze, this shored-up the regime base by frightening the minorities and pulled in an Iranian occupation force to rescue the dictator.
Whatever the truth of this specific incident turns out to be, it is very interesting to see this in the Wall Street Journal. The spooky, covert side of what the Assad regime has done in its quest to maintain power has gotten far too little attention and has even been dismissed by some as “conspiracy theories”. But here is a mainstream, credible report that Assad murdered his own brother-in-law to consolidate his regime. If it becomes clear in observers’ minds that they are dealing with a regime capable of that—and relying on manipulating the population into supporting it by frightening them with the alternative—then perhaps there is hope that, before it is too late, they will see through the Assad regime’s manipulation of the Salafi-jihadists, too.
In Algeria in the 1990s, the regime destroyed all moderates—assassinating all the academic, liberal oppositionists, for example—in the first months of the rebellion. Le Pouvoir then lured foreign jihadists into Algeria, seized control of the insurgency, and drove it into the dead-end of takfirism and mass-murder to discredit its cause among the people. It worked. It took years to get the defectors to testify, but testify they did. In Syria, we have defectors like Bassem Barabandi, a defector from Assad’s Foreign Ministry, testifying in real time. Perhaps now they will be listened to, and this ruinous course of believing Assad is a bulwark against Islamic terrorism, rather than its godfather, can be abandoned.
Postcript: It had seemed clear to me that Shawkat was the target of the bombing, but Dagher confirmed this after the article was published.