The End of the Political Solution

The Assads seized power by force. Wednesday's attack proves they will only be removed through force.

It's rare that Syrians -- at least, all but the most hopeless pro-regime ones -- rely on state media for a dose of good news. But Wednesday's confirmed killings of at least three key members of the regime's "crisis management cell" prove two things: first, that the revolution is now literally at Bashar al-Assad's doorstep, and second, that diplomats have officially been written out of the script on what to do about Syria.

Let's start with the first. The building targeted Wednesday was reportedly the National Security Compound in the Rawda district of Damascus, one of the most heavily fortified and wealthiest neighborhoods inside the capital.  Rebel officials told Britain's Daily Telegraph that there were two bombs -- one hidden in a flower arrangement and one in a chocolate box -- which had been smuggled into the meeting days earlier by FSA members working closely with the drivers and bodyguards of the crisis management cell.     

The victims confirmed by the Syrian regime so far are Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and brother-in-law to Assad; Dawood Rajha, the defense minister; and Hasan Turkmani, a former defense minister who is widely considered to be the mastermind behind the regime's Inquisitorial torture network. (Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar was initially reported dead, though Syrian state media subsequently denied this.)

But don't mind the titles. They don't matter and never did, for the simple reason that influence in Syria is inextricable from one's filial connection to the House of Assad, which has always behaved more like Levantine Borgias or a modern-day organized crime syndicate than a classic authoritarian dictatorship. This is why Brigadier General Manaf Tlass's defection this month was so significant: His family was seen as the glue that bound the Sunni merchant class to the Alawite lordlings of Damascus, and so the abandonment was intended, and likely taken, as a personal slight. And it's why Shawkat's death is even more serious.

Shawkat, who has held many titles since he joined the army in the late 1970s, was tasked with overseeing all the intelligence directorates as well as some of its most historically sensitive "operations" including possibly orchestrating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Some members of the Assad regime blamed him for failing to protect Hezbollah heavy Imad Mugniyeh, who was killed under mysterious circumstances in a car bombing in Kafr Souseh, Damascus, in 2008. (Of course, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah isn't about to concede his ally's defeat just yet - he delivered a speech on the night of July 18 praising the slain Syrian officials as "comrades-in-arms on the path of the conflict.")


Liaising with Hezbollah was a crucial responsibility for Shawkat, which may be why his death was first announced on the hardline Shiite group's Al Manar television in Lebanon. Although he never got on well with Bashar's younger brother Maher al-Assad, who commands the Fourth Armored Division, he was in many ways Maher's mirror image in the mukhabarat: a feared and cunning architect of state repression who always had the president's ear. When Bashar inherited his father's role in 2000, an opposition poster joked that you could "vote for one president, get two more absolutely free" -- a reference to Maher and Assef.

So far, both an obscure Islamist rebel group, Liwa al-Islam, and the Free Syrian Army headquartered in Antakya, Turkey, have claimed responsibility for the attack. Was it a suicide bombing, possibly by Rajha's bodyguard, or a remotely detonated improved explosive device smuggled into the meeting room piecemeal? Who knows. But it is seems unthinkable that this attack could have been carried out without the close collaboration of regime insiders, which was the real point of it anyway. It wasn't designed to overthrow Assad in one go but to sow fear and paranoia within the remainder of his inner circle and put them on notice that they're next unless they defect. "If history has taught us anything," Michael Corleone said in The Godfather II, "it is that you can kill anyone." The only tactics a mafia understands are its own.

As for continued diplomacy, British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the bombing and U.N. envoy Kofi Annan asked the Security Council to delay a vote on a resolution calling for sanctions against Syria. He might have done so via carrier pigeon to underscore just how behind the times the international response is to this crisis. The United States, Britain, France one side, and Russia and China on the other, are in a pitched war of words over a country that exists only in their collective imagination, where a "political solution" is still thinkable and we're only one stray comma away from the Chapter VII resolution that will bring lasting peace and stability.

This is either supreme fantasy or deep cynicism underwriting what is in fact a consensus that no one has the desire or will to sort out Syria. Rebels I spoke with recently in Istanbul -- they were there to attend a bomb-making seminar -- told me that even if Assad were to renounce power, they'd fight on because the institutions of state terror, including the 27 torture dungeons recently anatomized by Human Rights Watch, would inevitably remain in place. No one abroad seems to want to listen to them. Maybe now they will.



An Army of Un

Is North Korea's new leader putting the country's powerful military in its place?

For photos of Kim Jong Un in his new role as leader, click here. 

On Wednesday, North Korea announced that the country's leader Kim Jong Un had been given the title of marshal, a move that immediately followed the Sunday surprise announcement that powerful Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho had been removed from his posts. Before being promoted to chief of the General Staff, and then the Politburo in 2010, Ri had run the Pyongyang Defense Command, an army unit responsible for regime security. It's a sensitive job that requires the absolute trust of the Kim family.

The 69-year-old Ri, officially dismissed "for his illness," received just a four-sentence goodbye in KCNA, North Korea's official news agency. In what might have been an additional slap in the face, the announcement failed to mention highlights from Ri's 52 years of service in the North Korean military, standard for dismissals.

Pyongyang watchers have been busy speculating what this news means for North Korea. Some analysts believe it's a power play by the 28- or 29-year-old Kim Jong Un to re-assert control over the military; a move by his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek to eliminate a rival; or even the result of a policy dispute. North Korea's maddeningly opaque palace politics make it impossible to draw any easy conclusions from Ri's sacking; additionally, the title marshal is redundant, given that Kim is already the supreme commander of the Korean People's Army. But a possible interpretation is that Kim is finally distancing itself from the regime's most powerful institution: its military.

Since he took power in December 2011 after the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the younger Kim has moved quickly to establish his military bona fides: he presided over military exercises, hobnobbed with high ranking generals, and inspected military bases. But in April, Pyongyang watchers began to see signs that Kim Jong Un might support a policy shift away from the "military first" policy that was the hallmark of his father's tenure. The day after its failed missile launch, the regime revised its constitution to proclaim North Korea a "nuclear state." The move could signify that Pyongyang believes it has achieved a viable deterrent, thus securing Kim Jong Il's legacy and allowing the regime to justify reallocating resources away from the military.

During his first national address on April 15, marking the 100th anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il Sung's birth, Kim Jong Un gave obligatory praise to the military first policy while stressing the economy and improving people's lives as top priorities. (By contrast, the only known words Kim Jong Il ever said in public were "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People's Army!") After Kim Jong Un's speech, where he said "the time has gone forever when enemies threatened and intimidated us with atomic bombs," North Korean media began to stress that Kim Jong Il had developed the country's defense capabilities enough to allow his son to promise a future where the population would no longer have to "tighten its belts." It was a starkly different message from the 1990s, when resources flowed to the defense sector while a devastating famine killed up to 3.5 million people, or as much as 15 percent of the population.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim Jong Un is often photographed visiting military installations and palling around with soldiers, ostensibly to show his dedication to keeping North Korea safe. But in general, the younger Kim's propaganda campaigns appear to focus more on his desire to improve people's standards of living. In April, he criticized officials for their "pathetic" management of a Pyongyang amusement park. He also called publicly on the Cabinet and State Planning Commission to devise a plan that would require "vast resources, facilities, and funds" to deal with the challenges of land management. He has made no similar call on defense spending. In April, the country's rubber stamp legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly, kept defense spending at 15.8 percent of total state budget, a figure that has not changed for four years.

In late May, a sign of discontent appeared in the pages of the North Korean Workers' Party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun. Entitled "Firm Guarantee for Defending the Country's Sovereignty and Right to Exist," the article said, "Reinforcing military power ... is not as easy and simple as it sounds. Funds, as well as up-to-date technology, are necessary." This is not unprecedented; in the mid 2000s, North Korean media also hosted a subtle guns-vs.-butter debate, which coincided with very limited market reforms. But the May 30 article, which seemed to take direct aim at a policy initiative pushed by the country's new leader, most likely had the backing of a faction or factions within the regime. It's unclear whether Ri was responsible for this shot across the bow, though the sentiment expressed in the article dovetails with warnings the Ri-led General Staff has made in the past.

Yet Kim Jong Un seems unmoved by these rumblings of discontent. Over the past two months, he has stepped up his high-profile activities designed to focus attention on the economy and domestic policy. His actions have stressed the importance of keeping up with "global trends" in the areas of technology and light industry. In early July, he appeared in the audience of a performance featuring Disney characters, which appeared to be an endorsement of Western culture. A week later, Ri was gone.

This narrative is, of course, educated guesswork based on very limited information. It's too early to tell conclusively whether Ri's dismissal and Kim's actions signify a move away from the military. As the transition of power plays out in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un and his supporters will need to craft an image that signals that he is both his own man and a visionary able to step into the shoes of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. But to do it, he'll need to deal with his father's military first.