The attack seemed to mark a pivotal moment in the revolt, the first time that the regime’s tightly controlled and fiercely loyal inner circle has been punctured since Syrians first took to the streets to demand reforms in March 2011 and then later took up arms. Among those killed was Assef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law, who was widely feared as one of the chief enforcers of the brutal tactics that have been used in the effort to quell the unrest.
Rumors flew — that the president himself was dead, that he had fled the capital in a helicopter, that his notoriously ruthless brother Maher had been killed and that Free Syrian Army rebels were closing in on the presidential palace. Although none appeared to be true, they contributed to a building sense of anticipation that many months of stalemate on battlefields around the country could be coming to an end.
“Right now we are on the cusp. The regime might be able to contain it, or things might unravel completely,” said Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Ohio’s Shawnee State University who is active in the Syrian opposition.
In Washington, U.S. officials said the attack offered a clear sign of the Assad regime’s vulnerability. But they expressed anxiety about the potential for increased chaos as the rebels try to press their advantage and the regime seeks to reassert its authority.
“This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at a Pentagon news briefing.
‘Beginning of the end’
The opposition’s hopes that Assad’s hold was slipping were tempered by fears of a backlash after the government vowed to retaliate against the “terrorists” responsible for the bombing, warning that ordinary Syrians nationwide would arm themselves to defend the regime. “This is the decisive battle not only in Damascus but in Syria as a whole,” Information Minister Omran Zoabi said on state television. “They are wrong to underestimate us.”
The streets of Damascus emptied, shops closed and residents stayed indoors, bracing for what many predicted could be a sharp escalation in violence. “I think what we are seeing today is the beginning of the end,” said Tariq Saleh of the Revolutionary Leadership Council of Damascus, who was speaking from the capital via Skype. “The scenario we fear is that the loyalists will launch revenge attacks on civilians before we witness the fall of the regime.”
He added: “We only hope it ends soon, with as little bloodshed as possible.”