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Assad's hold on power crippled, but not lost

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The killing of three top regime officials has dealt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a severe blow, but he has no intention of giving up his power, experts said on Thursday.

Both the regime and the rebels believe they are winning as clashes engulf Damascus, for the fifth consecutive day, and a day after an attack struck the National Security headquarters, killing Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and crisis cell chief Hassan Turkmani.

“He must be rather shocked, feeling that his back is against the wall,” said Volker Perthes of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, noting that the defection of General Manaf Tlass last week has also left an impact.

For Perthes, author of “Syria Under Bashar al-Assad: Modernisation and the Limits of Change” (2004), the regime will not fall just yet, and it might take more blows of the kind witnessed on Wednesday to push Assad out.

“When you fight with your back to the wall, it's not only that you start realizing that the game may be over,” said Perthes. “You also need an exit to stop fighting and there isn't one so far.”

“If we have a few successful attacks like the one that happened yesterday, you can have as much firepower as you want, but if your leadership and command structure break down, firepower just doesn't help very much,” said Syria expert Perthes.

The blast that killed three of the Assad regime's top hawks also wounded the interior minister and the national security chief. It remains unclear whether the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber or by remote control.

The power structure has been badly shaken, said Syria expert Fabrice Balanche, “but not broken.”

“It would have been if Bashar al-Assad had been killed. The defense minister was a figurehead, as is his successor” Fahd al-Freij, Balanche said.

“The death of Assef Shawkat is much more serious, because he was the one really in charge of the defense ministry,” Balanche told AFP.

But for Balanche, director of the Research and Study Group for the Mediterranean and Middle East, “this blow will likely provoke new high-level defections among Sunnis, while forcing the regime to rely more on the Alawites.”

Assad and several other regime pillars are members of the Alawite community, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam which constitutes some 10 percent of the Syrian population.

London's Chatham House researcher Rime Allaf agreed.

“It's a sharp blow, but one shouldn't think it's over,” said Allaf. “The regime still enjoys the support of the military and security apparatus, and it is still supported by Russia and Iran.”

Instead, analysts expect the violence to be fiercer.

“Violence will increase in the short term,” said Perthes. “We have two parties who don't think it's a good time for negotiation.”

Balanche also believed “combat will intensify, because the opposition has been galvanized by the (Damascus) attack. As for the regime's forces, they will show no mercy.”

“We might witness a new Baba Amr in a Damascus district,” said Balanche, in reference to a relentless bombing campaign of a Homs neighborhood that was rebel-held until early March this year.

Otherwise, Syria might suffer “ethnic cleansing of the type we saw in Houla or Treimsa, near Alawite areas ... by Shawkat loyalists looking to avenge his death.”

Houla and Treimsa are both majority Sunni towns in the central provinces of Homs and Hama respectively, where the opposition accused the regime of carrying out “massacres.”

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