The deadly attack on members of Assad's inner circle is having crucial repercussions in Syria. It has shown the depth of the opposition's connections and stands to divide ties within the Syrian ruler's family.
The Syrian regime was expecting an attack. Earlier this week, Qassem Saad Eddin, spokesman of the Free Syrian Army, announced an offensive on Damascus. Government troops prepared themselves for fighting in several of the Syrian captial's neighborhoods. Still, no one thought the opposition attack would begin with a secret operation.
Thus, a security guard who had defected to the rebel side had no problem planting a bomb in a conference room in the national security authorities' headquarters. While leading members of the Assad regime were meeting, the bomb went off. The explosion killed several key players, including President Assad's brother-in-law, Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, and Defense Minister Daoud Rajha.
Assad's family under fire
Oberservers say Shawkat's death marks a crucial turn of events. The husband of Assad's sister Bushra, he was nominated director of the Syrian military's secret service in 2005. At that time, the US and the EU placed sanctions on him. They accused Shawkat of being especially brutal in dealing with demonstrators. The US also saw him as connected with the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
Shawkat is the first member of Assad's family to be killed. An anonymous member of the Syrian National Council, or SNC, told DW that the attack will most likely create divisions within the Assad family.
"Assad's sister will not be prepared to just accept the death of her husband," the opposition member said. "She will blame her brother or some other members of the regime for it."
This, the source added, will result in breaking up close ties within the family.
Assad is also likely getting worried about the fact the rebels are actually able to pull off such an attack. Their ability to infiltrate the heavily guarded security headquarters goes to show how deep their connections are. The message of the attack is that from now on, no place in Damascus can be considered safe.
Syria expert Heiko Wimmen of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs agreed that the blast has sent a signal. Wimmen told DW the resignation of Nawaf Fares, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, already had many of Assad's supporters nervous. Now, the attack against the heart of the regime illustrates how vulnerable it is.
"Many people will be thinking from a pragmatic perspective when it comes time to consider their interests in the post-Assad period," Wimmen said.
He added that others are distancing themselves from the regime out of their convictions. Some are willing to sacrifice their lives in the struggle.
"You'd have to assume that those people are ideologically and religiously motivated if they go that far," Wimmen said.
Military personnel switching sides
The blast will also have an effect on members of Syria's military. According to the SNC, about 160 leading military men have already defected. The coalition of opposition groups also claims some 100,000 rank-and-file soldiers have also switched sides, many of them doing so after the attack.
"We can't give any concrete numbers, but we know that many soldiers have turned their back on the regime," a council member told DW.
It is unclear what kind of effect the attack will have on the coming days' fighting. The SNC claims the regime has been hit hard. But the blast was far from a final blow. The government is trying to show its determination on a daily basis. Official Syrian news agency SANA said the military was ready to purge the country of "criminal gangs" once and for all. The fighting thus goes on and on across the country, including Damascus itself.
Until the bitter end
Wimmen does not rule out that the fighting could intensify over the coming days and weeks. The violence could proceed more and more along ethnic and religious lines. Members of Syria's ruling Alawite sect are worried they will be collectively punished.
"That means that there will probably be a core group, including members of the military, that will really stick with the regime until the bitter end," Wimmen concluded. "And that end could be very bitter indeed."
Author: Kersten Knipp / ai
Editor: Shant Shahrigian