The next few weeks will show whether Syria's rebels can capitalise on their recent success – but President Bashar al-Assad's regime is still dangerous, especially if it retaliates with chemical weapons, writes defence analyst
The world has watched in dismay at the see-saw revolution in Syria. One minute it seems the rebels have the upper hand, the next the regime is swift to crush dissenters as if damping out some troublesome bush fire – only to have rebellion flare up somewhere else.
Pundits have continually tried to spot a tipping point in the conflict but each time have been proved wrong – until last week. First there were two high-profile defections, with Brigadier General Manaf Tlas and Nawaf Dares, the Syrian Ambassador to Iraq, jumping ship. Then came the dramatic bombing of a National Security Council meeting in the Syrian defence ministry in Damascus, killing the very architects of President Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown.
Up until the July 18 bombing Assad may have been able to delude himself that he could ride out the Syrian people's clamour for regime change, but his government has been shaken to the core. Now – with his defence minister Dawoud Rajha, his brother-in-law and deputy head of the armed forces Assef Shawkat, and his crisis management chief Hassan Turkmani blown to pieces – he must fear for his life more than ever. His interior minister and intelligence chief were also wounded in the attack, and the latter has since died of his injuries.
According to Turkish figures the rebel Free Syrian Army to date has only been able to recruit around 20 generals and about 100 other officers. Tlas, however, is a much bigger fish. He commanded a brigade of the elite Republican Guard Division. Led by al-Assad's brother Maher, the Guard is also responsible to the army's 4th Armoured Division – a key unit in suppressing the rebellion.
Also, Tlas is a Sunni, and Sunnis form the bulk of the FSA fighting against Assad's Alawite minority dominance. He was already in disgrace for negotiating with the rebels and was effectively under house arrest since May 2011. Tlas has accused Assad of "taking the country to hell". Fares' defection was also significant as he is the first senior diplomat to change sides.
The moribund British draft United Nations Security Council resolution threatening sanctions if Assad fails to implement a transition plan within 10 days, even if the Russians agreed, seems an academic exercise as it is likely to be overtaken by events.
Bombing of the senior leadership and recent defections aside, the simultaneous bombing of 4th Armoured Division's barracks in Damascus and unconfirmed reports that up to 120 armoured vehicles have gone over to the rebels are just as, if not more, significant. The attack on 4th Division may have been an attempt on Maher's life. The Republican Guard and 4th Armoured are the principal divisions protecting the regime; if they begin to implode then it is all over. The only other credible unit is the 14th Special Forces Division but this is spread thinly. The remaining under-strength mechanised and infantry divisions are not up to much, which is why they have relied on the undisciplined militias.
Indicating that the Syrian regime is running out of resources, Israeli military intelligence has reported that Syrian troops have been redeployed from the Golan Heights to Damascus. This surely is now the beginning of the end for Assad's regime. The coming weeks will show whether or not the rebels can capitalise on these successes and create an unstoppable momentum – in the meantime though they remain horribly out gunned on the streets of Syria's cities.
Chillingly, Nawaf Fares warned that Assad could lash out with his considerable chemical weapon stockpile and alleged they have already been used in the city of Homs. Certainly there are regular reports of Syrian troops being issued with gas masks – such a move would certainly send Syria to hell.Anthony Tucker-Jones is a former military intelligence officer and now a defence commentator. This article was first published on PublicServiceEurope.com's sister website defencemanagement.com Assad 'ready to use chemical weapons'