BEIRUT – No one really saw this coming. That is, no one except for the handful of Syrian rebels who executed the startling July 18 bombing in Damascus that claimed the lives of Syria's top intelligence and security officials. But the shockwaves of this assassination have already reverberated across the Middle East, leading political players of all stripes to contemplate the possibility of President Bashar al-Assad's imminent demise.
Confirmed dead in the explosion, which Syrian state media blames on a suicide bomber but Free Syrian Army officials insist was caused by a remote-detonated device, are Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; his "deputy" Asef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in law and one of the regime's most feared strongmen; and Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani, a former Defense Minister.
After more than a year of being shelled by the regime's well-equipped military and terrorized by gangs of pro-regime military thugs, the Syrian rebels' attack was the equivalent of blowing up the Death Star: They not only decapitated the Assad regime's top security officials, they sent a message that they could reach anyone -- and any part of the country. Even if the belief that Assad could fall any day is overblown (and with such limited access inside Syria it's impossible to know for sure) -- it is clear that his hold on power is shakier than ever.
Syrian state media's account of the attack focused on the "martyrdom" of Rajiha, but Shawkat -- who only merited a single line in that same announcement -- is the real story here. The defense minister, who hailed from the Greek Orthodox community, was widely considered an affirmative action hire -- someone meant to keep Syria's Christian minority on the side of the regime. Shawkat, on the other hand, is a true insider. He has run Syria's feared military intelligence services, which is probably the only institution still trusted on any level by loyalists, and was in charge during the last gasps of Syria's occupation of Lebanon. He also often acted as a regime fireman, parachuting into trouble areas to quell dissent. Despite much resistance from some members of the Assad family to his marriage, Shawkat regularly amazed Syria observers with his ability to navigate the opaque power struggles and often-deadly intrigue that comes part and parcel with the Assad family dictatorship.
Syria's rebels responded with unrestrained glee, filming celebrations around Syria for YouTube and fielding phone calls from journalists in Lebanese safe houses, where they openly expressed pride in the operation. The real prize was Shawkat: Rebel officials tell FP that despite his sometimes rocky history with his in-laws -- it's rumored that Maher al-Assad, the president's brother, once shot him during a family meal -- Shawkat's dedication to the regime once again made him an indispensible and trusted enforcer at a time when the Assad clan has seen key allies abandon them.
"Shawkat and Maher have been in charge of crushing the revolution," said a Free Syrian Army official in Lebanon who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmad. "They can't trust the Sunnis in the army after thousands of defections and this regime always turns to its own blood when it is time to protect the regime."
It's not only the assassination that is bolstering the Syrian opposition's morale. The rebels have also sustained four days of fighting in the capital, which had previously seen only limited clashes and smaller demonstrations as the rest of Syria descended into civil war. Furthermore, in numerous meetings with anti-regime fighters in Lebanon over the past several months, it has become abundantly clear that new financing and equipment have reached the once shabby rebel army units.
"This regime is so rotten that even their own supporters sell us weapons," one rebel commander in a village along the border with Lebanon told me. "We never needed weapons from outside countries like America or Saudi -- we needed money. Syria has plenty of weapons already and these guys are so corrupt that they profit by selling us the weapons we will later use to kill them."
"Now we have money," he concluded, before demurring about the source of the generosity.
Across the border in Lebanon, which rightfully watches events unfold in Syria like its future could depend on the outcome, reaction to the assassination depended on one's political loyalties.
Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a conservative Sunni cleric currently engaged in a political standoff in the Lebanese city of Sidon with Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies, has emerged in the last month as a key critic of the Lebanese government's neutrality on the Syria question. In a wide-ranging interview, I asked the cleric -- whom critics have painted as an al Qaeda-style radical -- about his feelings towards the Syrian revolution next door.
"The Syrian regime will fall," he said. "And it will have an impact in Lebanon, but I doubt Hezbollah will resort to violence over it. I expect they will push out politically to protect themselves from the loss of their allies in Damascus. But, God willing, we will not see sectarian violence."