Syria bombing signals new push to topple Assad, rebels say
RANCOUS, Syria — Syria’s defense minister, his deputy and several top security officials in the besieged government of President Bashar Assad were killed Wednesday morning by an explosion at a security center in that country’s capital, Damascus, Syrian state television reported.
It was the most significant strike against Assad’s security apparatus in 17 months of demonstrations and violence aimed at toppling the president, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. It immediately sparked questions about how much longer his government could remain in power.
Rebel units in this town 25 miles north of Damascus reacted to the news with unrestrained glee, breaking into spontaneous song and repeatedly shouting “God is great.” But they held their positions, saying the Syrian army still controlled the major arteries into the capital and that the search for alternate routes to join fighting in the capital had been futile.
Rebels in other parts of the country said the attack and the ongoing battles inside Damascus were signals for them to intensify their attacks. “This is what we have been waiting for,” said one rebel commander reached by phone in Idlib province in the country’s north. “We have our own attack here. It will be so big and we will do it so soon.”
In Turkey, the Free Syrian Army immediately claimed credit for the blast, though it was uncertain what role the leadership there might have had in its planning. The FSA generally is described as a loose confederation of fighting groups, without a singular command structure.
It was also uncertain how the attack had been carried out. Reports indicated that there may have been two explosions, one outside the building and another inside that struck a meeting of the top officials. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing an unnamed Syrian security source, said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who was a member of Assad’s presidential guard.
Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Dawood Rajha, 65, the highest-ranking Christian in Assad’s government, died in a hospital where he was being treated for his wounds. Also killed was his deputy and Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. A bevy of defense strategists who plotted the regime response to the uprising were critically injured and also may have died, including the interior minister and his deputy, according to the rebel groups.
It was unclear how the regime would respond militarily. According to one news station, Assad had already named a new defense minister.
Sipan Hassan, the director of international relations department for the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition organization, called Wednesday’s bombing “the beginning of the end of the regime.”
The death of the Rajha was not only a psychological loss but marked the demise of the regime’s top strategist against the rebels, Hassan said. He said rebels were able to set off two bombs — one inside the building and one outside — in part with the help of sympathetic members of the military who worked in the ministries as spies for the opposition.
The attack was the result of weeks of planning, Hassan said.
“The Syrian people must have this kind of solution given the silence of the international community,” he said.
Despite his predictions that the regime is entering its final days and his prediction that other members of the Assad government will be “scared” by the attack, Hassan said he doubted that Assad would leave quietly.
“He will fight to the end,” he said.
Speaking from his headquarters in southern Turkey, FSA commander Riad al-Asaad claimed responsibilities for the attack. But it remained unclear whether the attack was part of a larger coordinated rebel offensive or the result of independent initiative by local rebel commanders in Damascus.
FSA fighters have repeatedly expressed their belief that the real fight for the country will occur in Damascus. Many have said to expect a renewed offensive to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins later this week.
Earlier in the day, an FSA safe house in the normally peaceful Damascus suburb of Yabrud apparently was targeted by either artillery or rocket fire, resulting in five rebels killed and 10 wounded. The attack represented the single deadliest day in Yabrud since the beginning of the conflict.
Reached via phone, a local FSA fighter said he suspected the rebels may have been targeted by their cell phone signals. He also expressed his ongoing concern that the group might have a government collaborator within its ranks. The funeral for the slain rebels drew thousands of demonstrators into the streets.
An activist near the flashpoint city of Homs said an eerie calm had descended on the city, and that for the first time in weeks residents had heard no sounds of the shelling that has become a routine part of their daily lives.