Why Syria could get even uglier

By David Lesch, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David W. Lesch is professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and author or editor of 12 books, including the upcoming “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.” The views expressed are solely those of the author.

The past couple of weeks haven’t been good to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  First, his long-time friend and presumed regime insider, General Manaf Tlas, defected. This was followed soon after by the defection of the Syrian ambassador to Iraq.  In the past week it has been reported that a number of high-ranking Syrian military officers defected to the Syrian opposition, perhaps taking their cue from Tlas. Finally, on July 18, a massive bomb exploded in a national security compound in Damascus, killing an unspecified number of Syrian security personnel, including the defense minister and the deputy defense minister, the latter being Assaf Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law.

These were certainly serious body blows to the regime. Taken in and of themselves they aren’t necessarily fatal blows to the regime, especially since Tlas’ and reportedly even Shawkat’s access to the inner sanctums of the decision making apparatus weren’t what they once were.  Nonetheless, oftentimes perception is more important than reality. And the perception is that two long-time stalwarts of the regime, one (Tlas) from a family that more than any other has been associated over the decades with propping up the Assads, both father and son, and the other (Shawkat) a relative to al-Assad by marriage who had been the head of military intelligence in Syria and for years the most feared person in the country, are now gone. Because of this, it appears that the regime might be on the verge of imploding. The fact that the bomb apparently was planted inside a high security complex that played host to a national security meeting had to send shockwaves throughout the regime. How can anyone feel safe at this point? Are there moles in the inner sanctums of the regime that planted the bomb?  In other words, a regime that was already paranoid about pernicious unseen forces arrayed against it just became that much more unsure of who its friends and enemies are.