BEIRUT: Syrians are bracing to see how President Bashar Assad’s forces will respond after a bomb attack effectively wiped out his crisis command unit, killing three top generals meeting at the heavily guarded National Security headquarters.
The extraordinary attack on the ruling elite is sure to mark a new phase in Syria’s civil war and suggests that those once close to Assad are turning against him.
The explosion, blamed on a bodyguard who attended a meeting of security chiefs at their Damascus headquarters, killed Defense Minister General Daoud Rajha, Assad’s brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat and General Hassan Turkmani, head of the regime’s crisis cell.
A report by Lebanon’s Future News television, quoting an Arab diplomatic source, said Assad’s brother Maher, commander of a division in the Republican Guards, was at the meeting and had suffered critical wounds.
The bombing follows some of the most intense fighting in Damascus of the 16-month uprising, a growing list of high-ranking defections and mounting frustration by world leaders over their inability to find a diplomatic solution.
The U.S. said the bombing showed Assad was “losing control” of Syria.
Two rebel groups claimed responsibility for the attack.
Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means “The Brigade of Islam,” said in a statement on its Facebook page that it had “targeted the cell called the crisis control room in the capital of Damascus.”
“We happily inform the people of Syria and especially the people of the capital that the National Security Bureau, which includes what is called the crisis management cell, has been targeted with an explosive device by the Sayyed al-Shuhada brigade of Liwa al-Islam,” the statement read.
The Free Syrian Army also claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Qassim Saadedine, a spokesman. “This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started,” he said.
A security source in Syria said a bodyguard for the president’s inner circle had detonated explosives at a meeting of ministers and President Assad’s top security and military officials.
A spokesman for Liwa al-Islam confirmed the claim by telephone but denied that it was a suicide attack.
“Yes we did the attack but there was no suicide bomber,” said the man, who asked to be identified as Abu Ammar. “Our men managed to plant improvised explosives in the building for the meeting. We had been planning this for over a month.”
The whereabouts of Assad, his wife and his three young children were not immediately clear.
Assad gave no immediate statements on the attack, which state-run TV initially blamed on a suicide bomber but later referred to as a bomb.
As news of the assassinations broke, Syrians opposed to Assad celebrated in several locations across the country.
Internet videos showed people in convoys of cars and motorbikes honking their horns and firing weapons in the air in the northeastern Idlib province, along with Aleppo in the north, Deraa in the south and Homs in central Syria. In the village of Hass, residents distributed sweets as they gleefully shouted: “You are going to hell, Shabbiha” – a reference to the pro-regime militia that has been blamed for mass killings.
The Daily Star could not immediately verify the authenticity of the video.
Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels’ battle to oust Assad; Shawkat, 62, the deputy
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defense minister who is married to Assad’s elder sister, Bushra, and is one of the most feared figures in the inner circle; and Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister who died of his wounds in the hospital. Also wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition.
The attack came at a time of great momentum for the forces trying to oust Assad. Four straight days of clashes between rebels and government troops this week in Damascus showed the rebels can now infiltrate the tightly controlled capital.
The state-run news agency, SANA, reported that the bombing was aimed at the National Security building, a headquarters for one of Syria’s intelligence branches, less than 500 meters from the U.S. Embassy.
Although there were no statements from Assad, Syrian TV said after the attack that a decree from him had named Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij as the new defense minister. Freij used to be the army’s chief of staff.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the bombing could usher in the end of the Assad regime.
“I think this type of event has massive impact,” he said. “A few weeks ago, we were counting the life span of this regime in months. Now after the last week and today, I think you’d have to say weeks. This is a very fast moving conflict.”
A diplomatic source familiar with the Syrian regime said the deaths marked a “turning point, no matter how you look at it.”
“It is a powerful signal that the people in charge of the security situation in the country failed – because the whole crisis cell has been wiped out,” the source said.
But the source cautioned against predictions that the attack would deter Assad’s regime from pursuing a security response against his opponents.
“Now that the conservatives around him are gone, we might hope that he becomes a little bit more flexible, but he may well harden his position because it has become personal now.”
Early signs suggested the regime was not willing to back down, as helicopters fired on rebel areas around the capital and residents expressed fear of an imminent intense crackdown. Shortly after Wednesday’s attack, the Syrian army said its forces would continue to fight.
“Whoever thinks that by targeting the country’s leaders they will be able to twist Syria’s arm is disillusioned because Syria’s people, army and leadership are now more determined than ever to fight terrorism ... and cleanse the nation from the armed gangs,” the army said.
“It’s so empty, it reminds me of when Hafez Assad died in 2000,” said a resident of Damascus, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. “Everyone is really scared of the coming days, especially tonight, with the possibility that the regime will take revenge.”
The government characterizes the revolt as the work of terrorists and foreign extremists, and although the uprising began with mostly peaceful protests, a fierce government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. On Sunday the Red Cross formally declared the conflict to be a full-blown civil war.
Rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several big suicide attacks this year suggest that Al-Qaeda or other extremists are joining the fight.
At the U.N., the Security Council delayed a vote scheduled for later in the day on a new resolution on Syria in a last-minute effort to get Western nations and Russia – a close Damascus ally – to reach agreement on measures to end the violence.
The White House said President Barack Obama called Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday and they agreed on the need for a political transition as soon as possible, but there was no apparent breakthrough in the deadlock.
The White House said the two leaders noted their differences in dealing with the crisis but agreed to have their officials work toward a solution.
Reacting to the bombing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of inciting Syria’s opposition.
“Instead of calming the opposition down, some of our partners are inciting it to go on,” he was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
Supporting the opposition is a “dead-end policy,” Lavrov said, “because Assad is not leaving voluntarily.”