The balance of power in Syria was changed forever last Wednesday. Inside a nondescript three-floor building in the heart of a secure zone in Damascus, three security chiefs were dead and a fourth mortally wounded as the Middle East’s most ruthless regime was rocked to its core.
The rebel force filming nearby had just detonated a bomb inside the inner sanctum, something that was never supposed to happen in a state rooted in four decades of totalitarian rule and fear.
Panic was clear in the voices of the emergency responders, whose radio calls were intercepted by the watching rebels. Their frantic alarm, the rebels say, showed a dimension to revolutionary Syria that did not exist even hours earlier and had never been a trait during the dynastic rule of the al-Assads.
Even during four embattled days before the bombing, the regime had maintained the appearance of control as a large rebel force advanced on the capital from three directions — the first time such an assault had been launched in 17 months of violence. There is no calm anywhere any more.
Now, with Syria’s rigid order ever more vulnerable and its neighbors increasingly alarmed, planning for life after the regime is well under way. That Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is finished is now a given; far less certain is what will be left of Syria in his wake.
The key ingredient in the regime’s longevity — fear — is no longer the glue that will hold it together. As loyalist troops battled rebel forces in Damascus over the weekend in an attempt to seize control of ground they had lost in the capital, more senior generals than ever announced they had switched sides. Defections, or desertions of more junior officers and the rank and file, were widely reported across the country.
There is now a real sense among diplomats in Beirut and the exiled Free Syrian Army leadership in Turkey that a catalyst has been reached, perhaps well before anyone was ready for it.
“In many ways, they got to this point before they or anyone else has prepared for the next phase,” a Western official in Beirut said. “There are no credible systems in place among the Syrian National Council [SNC], or anyone in the opposition groupings, which could act as a buffer to chaos.”
Wissam Tarif, a senior official from the global campaigning organization, Avaaz, said an urgent appeal to Syrians living in exile was needed to help prevent a highly dangerous power vacuum that will likely follow the crumbling of regime authority.
“It will require highly skilled people with advanced material skills to prevent sectarian war,” he said. “There is a huge task in trying to get people home. We haven’t heard of any initiative or planning. There is a transition plan, but no planning for who is going to fund the transition period.”
Forty years of rule by a police state has crippled any meaningful development of a civil society in Syria. The key institutions of state remain interwoven into the Baath party, which has acted as the eyes and ears of the regime, and the pillars of justice, such as the rule of law and court system, are far from independent.
When the corroded institutions of state fall along with the regime, there will be next to no checks and balances. The looting and bedlam that followed the fall of Baghdad is very likely to be repeated in Damascus, unless order can somehow be quickly secured.