Juan Cole: Top Ten Implications of the Damascus Bombing





Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.  His latest book, "Engaging the Muslim World," is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website.

The bombing of the Security Headquarters of the Baath government of Syria on Wednesday killed the Minister of Defense, the deputy Minister of Defense, and the Assistant to the vice-president and head of crisis management office Gen Hassan Turkomani. It wounded the Minister of the Interior (i.e. head of the secret police) and a member of the national security council. Some reports said that also wounded was Hafez al-Makhlouf, a cousin of the president on his mother’s side of the family and a key security figure. The Makhloufs, especially Ramy, are the business wing of the al-Assad cartel, and their billionaire ways were among the sources of discontent that provoked the uprising.

What does this bombing mean for Syria and the Middle East?

1. It demonstrates that the rebels have sympathizers in high positions within the regime. The bomb had to have been planted by an insider. This situation reminds me of the American dilemma in Vietnam, where we now know that many high-ranking Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers were in fact sympathizers with the Communists and basically double agents.

2. It follows upon this conclusion that the al-Assad regime is unlikely to be able to emulate the Algerian military, which crushed the Islamic Salvation Front in a brutal civil war from 1992 through the early zeroes of the present century. Some 150,000 Algerians are said to have died in the dirty war, with atrocities on both sides. But when the smoke cleared, the junta was still in control, and its favored secular civilians were in office. In all that time, the Muslim fundamentalist opposition never laid a glove on any of the high officials or officers. But the Algerian elite closed ranks against the Islamic Salvation Front, having a cultural set of affinities and a common source of patronage in the state-owned oil and gas sector.

If the rebels in Syria can reach into the Security HQ this way, and assassinate the highest security officials of the regime, that ability does not augur well for Bashar al-Assad’s ability to win the long game, as his counterparts did in Algeria.

3. The targets of the bombing were likely intended to send a message to Syria’s minorities. The minister of defense, Daoud Rajha, was a Christian. The Christian minority, which could be as large as 14% of the population, has been on the fence during the revolution, and some actively support the secular nationalist regime because they fear Muslim fundamentalists will come to power. Rajha’s assassination was intended to warn them to join the revolution or at least get out of its way. Likewise, Assef Shawkat, the deputy minister of defense, was an Allawite Shiite and was married to Bushra, the sister of Bashar al-Assad. If it is true that Hafez Makhlouf was wounded, he was another prominent Allawite. The rebels are largely (with significant exceptions) Sunni Muslims, from the majority community that has not typically held its fair proportion of high office....




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