Blowing up the Death Star

Syria's rebels score a direct hit.

Click here for rare photos of the other side of Syria's civil war.


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."

Assir may be right -- but as he well knows, there are no guarantees. The revolt in Syria has already been felt on multiple levels in Beirut, notably leading to street clashes in May. The Assad regime's brutal crackdown has exacerbated sectarian tensions between the pro-Assad parties that dominate the Shiite community and Lebanese Sunnis who have long resented Syria's domination of Lebanon. Assir himself has made waves in the Lebanese media by directly criticizing Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, which most Lebanese hesitate to do out of respect, fear, or both. Several weeks ago, supporters of Nasrallah attacked a local television station for daring to broadcast an interview with Assir in which he directly challenged both Nasrallah and his Shiite ally Nabih Berrih, who heads the Amal Movement.

Assir worries that the Alawite-dominated Syrian government's efforts to cling to power will only further radicalize its Sunni opponents.

"Now as we see the regime ready to fall, I worry that the Alawites will be persecuted over personal vendettas," he said. "I speak with many leaders of the Syrian revolution and they do not want this. They have moderate minds and do not hate a group, only the regime. But even they admit that so much violence has made this a personal war and they might not be able to stop the Alawites from great suffering once the regime falls. I hope this does not happen, but I fear it is too late to stop it."

Assad's allies in Lebanon, however, are not about to concede defeat. An hour and a half after my interview with Assir, back in Beirut, my car stopped to pick up several supporters and members of Hezbollah. Nasrallah has consistently argued for the survival of the Assad regime, which he describes as a great friend to Hezbollah -- and he did it again in a speech Wednesday night, praising the assassinated Syrian officials and hailing the Syrian government as "a real military supporter of the resistance."

An argument immediately broke out between the four men as they entered the car about the implications of the news of the bombing. One cadre member I have known for years was arguing that the regime was finished and that Hezbollah had a contingency plan, while his friends -- supporters but not official members of the group -- seemed skeptical.

"How could they have killed Shawkat?" one supporter demanded of his friend, a member of Hezbollah's military wing. "Did the regime have him killed and want to blame terrorists?"

"You know these Salafis," the Hezbollah guy said, citing a common refrain that the rebels are al Qaeda members backed by the United States and Israel. "They use suicide bombings and can reach anyone if they want to."

"Hezbollah has a plan," he added. "The party knows that the regime can now fall and has a plan to protect Lebanon from these people if it does."

I asked if, in the case of a rebel victory, Hezbollah expects that the mostly Sunni victors will take the war to the powerful Shiite group that dominates much of Lebanon. The car grew quiet as my question was translated for all to hear.

"Of course they will," he said. "These people are crazy. But we are ready for them."

And maybe they are -- at least, in the short term. But the war in Syria has all the makings of a nasty sectarian conflict that will rebound around the Middle East for years to come. The Syrian regime's propaganda that the rebels are nothing more than a group of Saudi and Israeli-backed jihadist nutters is just that -- propaganda. But just because the rebels aren't al Qaeda guys frothing at the mouth for the blood of Christians and Alawites doesn't mean they're cuddly Ewoks either. And it's not just about religion: As we have seen in Libya, those who pick up weapons with the intention of fighting to the death to protect their homes rarely just go home and retire. They are deeply changed by having killed in the name of survival, and they want power -- if only to prevent feeling so helpless ever again.

But for the first time in this long conflict, Assad's opponents are allowing themselves a glimmer of optimism. After the interview with Assir, the Sunni sheikh was walking me to my car when a phone call arrived with the news of the bomb. After I told him it appeared that Shawkat and Rajiha had been killed, Assir -- who consistently preached nonviolence in our interview -- allowed a grin to erupt across his bearded face.

Reaching out to bump my hand in the classic "terrorist fist jab" that President Barack Obama once gave his wife after a speech, Assir quietly predicted the fall of the Syrian regime.

"God willing, by the end of Ramadan," he said, referring to the holy month that begins in a few short days. "God willing."



A Current of Faith

As a divided Libya heads toward a historic vote, an Islamic "frame of reference" unites the country's political neophytes.

BENGHAZI, Libya – On a recent evening in Benghazi, as the sun dipped low over the Mediterranean, a stout, bespectacled man in a suit stepped, to wild applause, onto a stage erected on the city's Kish Square. The man was Mohammed Sawan, a long-standing member of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, who is from Misrata, and who, after spending years in Muammar al-Qaddafi's jails, is now leader of its affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP). JCP is fielding the largest number of candidates in Libya's national assembly elections to be held on July 7. "Our revolution started from here," Sawan began, going on to pay tribute to the martyrs of Benghazi.

The location and timing of the rally -- attended by more than 2,000 people -- were rich in symbolism. From where Sawan stood, he could see the military compound that was stormed by protesters in February last year as anti-regime demonstrations in Libya's second largest city tipped into an armed revolt against Qaddafi's 42-year experiment in tyranny. And just hours before Sawan's address, Libya's Islamists had cheered when Mohammed Morsi was declared winner of Egypt's presidential election. The mood at the JCP rally was buoyant, though there was no mention of Morsi in any of the speeches -- Libya's Muslim Brotherhood is sensitive to any accusations of external support or foreign affiliation. Sentimental patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers as the JCP candidates for Benghazi -- a mix of men and women, among them engineers, doctors, and teachers -- filed across the stage to read from the party's manifesto. They included Amal Sallabi, the sister of Ali Sallabi, a prominent Qatar-based Islamist who is considered ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last year, Ali Sallabi, while railing against "extremist secularists," told me he believed an explicitly Islamist political party would not fare well in Libya. Instead, he argued, parties with a nationalist agenda that respect faith and tradition would have the broadest appeal. That sums up the platform of the majority of groupings competing for votes in tomorrow's ballot for seats in a 200-strong assembly that will appoint a new interim government, which will rule until a constitution is drafted and approved in a national referendum. (The assembly was supposed to elect a committee to draft the constitution, but it was announced this week that members of the committee will be directly elected by voters.)

Almost all parties, including those considered more liberal, have adopted variations on the "Islamic frame of reference" line used by the JCP since it was established as one of Libya's first political entities in March.

Many within Libya's Islamist firmament talk of Benghazi, a conservative city with a long history of religious-tinged dissent before it became the cradle of Libya's revolution last year, as something of a bellwether. Its recent local council elections, in which Islamists won a high percentage of the vote, are viewed as a possible indicator as to how tomorrow's poll may play out. Benghazi is also considered the main contest for the Islamists. The JCP rally here on the day Morsi's victory was announced was the party's biggest and most lavish, featuring live horses (the party's campaign symbol is a rearing stallion) on stage.

Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who stepped down as head of the Tripoli Military Council earlier this year to join another new political body, the Homeland Party, has appeared at several campaign events in Benghazi -- even though he is running for election some 500 miles away in his home neighborhood of Souq al Jumaa, in Tripoli. "Much depends on Benghazi. It's a natural base for the Islamists," he says. The city is also home to a number of much smaller Islamist parties, some of whom have a more rigid agenda, that are fielding candidates only in Benghazi or across eastern Libya.

I met Sawan a few days before his Benghazi speech at an airy Tripoli villa which serves as a temporary headquarters for the JCP. He was between meetings with party apparatchiks who were finalizing an election campaign that would see him criss-cross the country several times.

Sawan told me that he predicts those candidates -- whether running on party lists or as independents -- that belong to what he calls the "Islamic current" will take at least 60 percent of the seats in the new national assembly. Belhaj and other leading Islamists echo Sawan's forecast. The performance of independent candidates is considered key. Under Libya's new electoral system, 120 seats are allocated for individual candidates with the remaining 80 going to those on party lists. As a result, several parties are fielding party members or affiliates -- particularly those considered high profile or popular enough to win without the support of the party machine -- as independent candidates.

On a recent canvas through a lower-middle class Tripoli district, one such candidate, Nizar Kawan, an Amazigh (or Berber) member of the Muslim Brotherhood, introduced himself to prospective voters as an independent candidate, though also a member of the JCP. Accompanied by a small army of male and female JCP activists wearing t-shirts and sashes emblazoned with the slogan "Libya will flourish with our will," Kawan strode through the area, shaking hands and distributing pamphlets as a young JCP activist filmed it all on an iPad. Dressed casually in a polo shirt and jeans, Kawan, a clean-shaven professional in his thirties, said his Muslim Brotherhood background is rarely an issue. "People ask about your program and what you are going to do for Libya, not your ideology."

One of the JCP canvassers, however, griped about attempts to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood and, by extension, the JCP. "There's lots of propaganda on the Internet trying to portray us as extremists. When we tell people who have suspicions about the [Muslim Brotherhood] that Nizar Kawan is a member, they are surprised and their minds change."

Sawan admits the Muslim Brotherhood, which he claims does not constitute the majority of the JCP membership, has an image problem in Libya. Qaddafi sought to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as dangerous radicals and because of his regime's severe repression -- members were referred to as "wayward dogs" and many were executed, jailed, or forced into exile -- the movement never managed to gain a social foothold in Libya, as it did in Egypt and other parts of the region.

"Some people here think the Muslim Brotherhood is something to be frightened of. This is based on misunderstanding -- they don't know what it is and they confuse us with extreme factions," Sawan says. "I am confident that gradually, as people get to know us, the real image of the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge and people will change their views like they did in Tunisia and Egypt."

Belhaj is also engaged in a battle of perceptions. Homeland Party officials acknowledge that while Belhaj has impeccable credentials within a particular milieu, his presence in the party has prompted questions from many other potential voters who have doubts about his evolution from a jihadist who led an insurgency against Qaddafi in the 1990s and spent time in Afghanistan to that of a fully paid-up democrat. Some also suspect him of being too close to Qatar -- the party's purple livery has prompted some to jokingly compare it to the maroon flag of the Gulf state.

The Homeland Party is leaderless for now, though Belhaj is its most recognizable face. Within its ranks are affluent business people with no Islamist background, Muslim Brotherhood members who did not join the JCP, and Libyans who were heavily involved in civil society efforts during last year's revolution, including Lamia Busidra, a British-educated engineer in her late thirties. Busidra's candidacy in Benghazi -- she is top of the party list there and the most prominent figure in a glossy billboard campaign -- has drawn criticism because she does not wear the hijab. But other party members, including Belhaj, say it demonstrates the diverse nature of the party -- whose slogan reads "All partners for the homeland" -- that sets it apart from others. "Our program is for all Libya so backgrounds are not very important. We are all contributing, whether Islamist or not," says Belhaj. Several other party members, including another Benghazi candidate, Mohammed Bayou, stress Homeland's nationalist nature over any religious tones. "We are not an Islamic or religious party," he says. "We are a nationalist party with an Islamic frame of reference that values active citizenship as the main base."

While Belhaj has a tiny cohort of former LIFG members in the Homeland Party, far more of the former LIFG forces have joined a smaller, more conservative party, Hizb al Umma al Wasat, founded by the LIFG's former deputy leader Sami al-Saadi. Its members include once prominent LIFG figures such as Khalid Sharif, who now heads Libya's National Guard, and Abdulwahab al-Ghayed, brother of Abu Yahya al Libi, who was recently killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. Al-Ghayed, who played a leading role in the revolution following his release from prison in February last year, is running for election in his hometown of Morzug in southern Libya.

At a recent rally in Tripoli, al-Saadi talked of building a moderate state rooted in Islam. "Freedom is a great thing, and we paid a heavy price for it, but it also requires responsibility," he told the modest crowd. Members describe Hizb al Umma al Wasat, which is running around 20 candidates, as more religious than the other, bigger parties, but say it is open to working with other Islamists once elected.

For months, Libya's Islamists have wondered if the country, which has a sizable Salafi current, would witness an equivalent to Egypt's Salafi al-Nour party which surprised analysts and pollsters with its performance in parliamentary elections last year. A number of small Salafi political groupings have sprung up, the largest of which is Asala. A senior figure from the party stressed that Asala, whose campaign posters feature women candidates wearing the niqab, is not a party per se and that it would only contest elections for the national assembly to ensure the Salafi perspective is heard in any constitutional deliberations.

Already the main parties within Libya's Islamist spectrum are discussing how they might cooperate with each other within the national assembly. "We will try to make arrangements to work together in the future as a bloc," says Abdel-latif Karmous, deputy leader of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood. "We are not really far from each other in terms of ideas."