Syrian president Bashar Assad made his first appearance today since the bomb blast which killed some of his top lieutenants.
He looked calm and composed on state TV even as his forces turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and rebels seized two of the country’s border crossings.
The unprecedented attack on Assad’s inner circle on Wednesday, along with the government’s inability to crush the rebels after five days of intense clashes in the Syrian capital, point to an unravelling of his grip on power after 16 months of violence.
“It is a war going on here, literally a war,” said a 25-year-old woman in the Muhajereen neighbourhood. The sounds of battle had kept her up all night and she stayed home from work because she feared random gunfire, she added.
“It reminded me of that night when the Americans shelled Baghdad nine years ago,” said the woman. “I was watching it on TV, but today I’m living a very similar situation.”
Even though Assad’s powerful military remains mostly loyal – suggesting a total collapse may not be imminent – the rebels appeared to be making startling gains as the civil war intensified.
Besides the fighting in Damascus, about half a dozen rebels took over a Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim, said Iraqi army Brigadier General Qassim al-Dulaimi. There are four major border posts with Iraq.
Rebels overtook a Syrian army outpost near the Syrian-Iraq border after clashes that killed 21 Syrian soldiers, he added.
In addition, amateur video posted online showed rebels taking over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stamped on portraits of Assad.
A diplomatic solution to ending the bloodshed seemed even more remote after Russia and China again vetoed a Western-backed UN resolution aimed at pressuring Assad’s government to end the escalating conflict.
Analysts said the regime was clearly shaken by the violence in the heart of its power base of Damascus, but the next step was not clear yet.
“We should not get carried away with speculating about the impending fall of the regime,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and an analyst on regional politics. He said the regime’s forces “are still showing a certain amount of cohesiveness in battle”.
Citing a network of sources on the ground, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported intense clashes in a string of neighbourhoods along the southern edge of Damascus, the north-eastern neighbourhood of Qaboun, and in number of western suburbs.
Gunfire and booms from shelling could be heard throughout the capital, and streets in the hard-hit areas were largely empty, save for government troops or rebels.
Today, many Syrians said they were not waiting around to see if the violence would end any time soon. Thousands streamed across the Syrian border into Lebanon at the Masnaa crossing point – about 25 miles from Damascus.
Hundreds of private cars as well as taxis and buses ferried people across.
Even if Assad did leave power, the opposition is widely perceived to be far too disorganised to take over. There is no clear candidate to lead the country in Assad’s absence, and the grim sectarian tint to much of the violence suggests any power vacuum will usher in a bloodbath.
Assad has not spoken about the bombing that killed three top aides: Defence Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the uprising; Gen. Assef Shawkat, 62, the deputy defence minister who was married to Assad’s elder sister, Bushra, and was one of the most feared figures in the inner circle; and Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defence minister.
Rebels claimed responsibility, saying they targeted the room where the top government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were meeting.
Assad’s appearance today was carried on state TV without audio, but the report appeared aimed at sending the message that he is alive and well, and in control. The report said Assad, wearing a blue suit and tie, swore in the new defence minister and wished him good luck. The report did not say where the ceremony took place.
Assad does not appear in public frequently, and rumours swirled that there was far more to Wednesday’s bombing than meets the eye.
It is still a mystery how anybody could have planted a bomb in such a high-level meeting, inside the National Security building, at a time of deep crisis.
Some observers believe it was almost certainly an inside job, carried out by a sleeper agent who had been a trusted regime confidante. Others speculate the bombing was actually the work of the regime itself, to decapitate a group of leaders who may have been planning a coup.
Adding to the confusion, Syria’s state news agency warned citizens that gunmen were disguising themselves in military uniforms to carry out attacks.