The attack on Syria’s emergency cabinet session gravely undermined the regime’s ability to function and suppress the uprising. The toughest blow to Bashar Assad is the killing of Assef Shawkat, who was not only the president’s brother-in-law but also the person who in practice commanded all the regime’s security arms.
The blow may be so grave that Assad won’t be able to recover. Intelligence officials speak of the possibility that this was the decisive move that will prompt Assad to quit, flee or be killed, thereby leading to chaos in Syria.
Another grave development for Assad is that members of his own Alawite sect show signs that they no longer support the regime and do not trust its ability to safeguard them. This minority group comprises some 10% of Syria’s population and its members man most of the top positions in the army and security forces.
According to credible Western sources, senior Alawite figures are starting to discuss the option of abandoning Assad and are also asking Hezbollah to dispatch men who would protect them the day after the regime collapses. Hezbollah and Iran, which are interested in gaining a significant foothold in Syria the day after, are exploiting the issue of protecting the Alawite minority as a pretext for involvement in the fighting and for supplying arms and advice to the regime.
Western intelligence officials are convinced that Shawkat’s assassination will accelerate the Syrian regime’s demise. The expected chaos would mean that many areas in Syria will not be ruled by the central government, with Syria turning into a failed state where local leaderships or tribes manage affairs while engaging in bloody battles among themselves.
The threat posed to Israel under such state of affairs is that many terrorists affiliated with the Global Jihad (al-Qaeda and its ilk) who arrived in Syria from Iran and Lebanon will exploit the chaos in order to establish themselves near the Golan Heights border and carry out attacks from there. In fact, quite a few Global Jihad groups are already in southern Syria, near the border with Israel.
The WMD threat
An even graver threat is that the chemical and biological weapons and some of the Syrian army’s immense missile and rocket arsenal will fall into the hands of radical Islamic elements. The scenario that Israel fears most of all is that Hezbollah will use the chaos to smuggle these arms into Lebanon. We know that for weeks now, American and Jordanian forces have been simulating a takeover of chemical and biological stockpiles.
Assad’s extensive arsenal also includes advanced missile and artillery systems received from Russia, as well as advanced surface-to-sea missiles and long range Scud D missiles that can hit any spot in Israel. In order to prevent these arms from ending up in Hezbollah’s possession, Israel closely monitors the movements of weapons systems and arms within Syria. Defense Minister Ehud Barak also made it clear that Israel will not accept the transfer of these systems to Hezbollah.
Another possibility feared by Israeli officials is that a despaired Assad will choose a suicidal gesture and embark on war against Israel in order to be recorded as a national hero in the annals of history, possibly in a desperate bid to divert public opinion away from the uprising against his regime. Yet officials here are not overly concerned by this scenario, as it is doubtful whether the collapsing army will even follow Assad’s orders.
Moreover, the current state of the Syrian army at this time and its readiness for war with Israel is not at its best, to say the least.
While reports keep coming in from Damascus, we can carefully estimate that within weeks, and possibly days, we’ll see the final collapse of the Damascus regime, which lost its legitimacy to rule a while ago.