There’s still time for Syria’s President Assad to right the ship but he may have to do it from his tribal heartland.
Several reports have Assad fleeing the capital as rebel units — still disorganized and without much of a command structure — pour into the city in an apparent attempt to seize Damascus and deal a telling blow to the regime.
The rebel attacks come one day after Assad’s defense minister and his close friend and confidante Assef Shawkat were killed by a suicide bomber.
A diplomat, who is following events in Syria, told Reuters: “Everyone is looking now at how well Assad can maintain the command structure. The killings yesterday were a huge blow, but not fatal.”
Meanwhile, rebel fighters streamed into Damascus convinced that they could take over the capital and isolate the government.
“Taking Damascus will be a morale blow to Assad’s regime,” Ali Bakran, a commander of a Free Syrian Army brigade that operates out Jabal al-Zawiya, told NBC News.
Rebels from his region has sent about 1,000 fighters to Damascus over the last two days, he said.
Bakran said that once the rebels had taken control of the capital, they planned seize state radio and television stations — a huge symbolic and tactical victory for anti-Assad forces.
“Once we take over the TV and radio stations, the army will collapse,” Bakran said.
‘We will not stop’
And after Damascus, the rebels planned to march to Latakia, where Assad was reportedly staying, to “finish the job,” Bakran added.
“We will continue our work, we will not stop, not after all this blood has been shed, not after all those innocents’ deaths,” he told NBC News.
Syrian rebels have kept up pressure following Wednesday’s assassinations in Damascus, fighting loyalist troops within sight of the presidential palace and near government headquarters, residents said.
Residents said there was no let-up in the heaviest fighting — now in its fifth day — to hit the Syrian capital in a 16-month revolt against Assad, whose family has dominated the pivotal Arab country for 42 years.
The rebel commander who optimistically thinks the army will collapse if communications are seized may be correct about the Sunni conscripts who make up the bulk of the armed forces.
But Assad’s Alawite sect of Muslims literally have no place to go. They make up only 12% of the population but control the lion’s share of the economy and dominate the top commands in the military. If Assad goes they are sunk, and they know it. Unlike Libya’s Gaddafi whose Qadhadfa tribe could get along well without him, the Alawites in Syria need the Assad clique for their very survival. Assad has been stoking sectarian tensions in recent months and it may come back to haunt his co-religionists in the chaos of a post-Assad Syria. The majority Sunnis especially would take their revenge on their oppressors and at the very least, the Alawites would be forced to flee.
In this case, it is probable that if they lose, they die.
This will be no replay of Libya — at least, at this stage of the war. The Alawite army units possess most of the tanks and heavy weapons and are at least two divisions strong, with the 4th armored division considered the army’s best. Led by Mahar Assad, Bashar’s younger brother, the 4th has been the spearpoint for the army’s attacks on unarmed civilians. They will be there to the end with Assad.
There are also 100,000 poorly trained but armed and fanatical shabbiha militia that Assad can count on. Not good in a stand up fight but effective in using terror tactics, the shabbiha are not likely to defect, or turn on their patron.
Since Assad has surrounded himself with only advisors he can trust with his life — family members and long time associates — they, too, are not likely to bolt or carry out a palace coup.
The Syrian regime is structured more like a mafia family than a government. For that reason, Assad will probably have to be physically overwhelmed by superior forces before the end arrives. And despite recent successes, and perhaps even the taking of Damascus, the Free Syrian Army is not up to the task — yet — of carrying out that mission.