In Damascus this morning a bomb at the National Security building killed several members of Bashar al-Assad’s “crisis cell” —a group of key regime figures tasked to put down the 16-month uprising against the Assad regime. Interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar and head of national security General Hisham Ikhtiyar, are reportedly wounded. The dead include the head of the crisis cell, General Hassan Turkmani, the defense minister, Daoud Rajha, and, most significantly, two Assad family members, the president’s brother in-law Assef Shawkat, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military, and Hafez Makhlouf, head of the Damascus branch of the General Security Directorate. An opposition source, Kamal Labwani, claims the president’s brother Maher al-Assad was “probably injured” in the blast.
The bombing comes after several days of “intense fighting” in the Syrian capital. Indeed, the chief of Israel’s military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi says that Assad has removed troops from the border on the Golan Heights and transferred them to Damascus.
With the regime stretched increasingly thin and shaken by its losses, it’s hardly surprising that there are rumors of further tremors. In a report yet to be confirmed, Vice President Farouk Sharaa is said to have defected to Jordan where he brought along a contingent of defectors from the army. Sharaa is originally from Deraa, where he was sent in the spring of 2011 to negotiate with the opposition when the uprising first began. The gathering force of the rebellion over the last year is evidence enough that the Sunni figure’s counsel amounted to little with his Sunni townsmen. His defection, like that of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, would have little effect on the inner core of the regime, but it would further expose the reality of the conflict—what we have been watching unfold in Syria is a sectarian civil war.
As the fighting in the capital, and today’s deadly bomb attack suggests, the Syrian opposition is trying to drive the Alawite regime out of the capital. The purpose of the regime’s campaign of sectarian cleansing to remove Sunnis from the Alawite heartland, as Tony Badran has written, is to carve out a safe zone, once the regime can no longer hold Damascus. It seems now that Assad may be looking to plan B sooner rather than later.