The Endgame in Syria Assad's Bloody Battle to Cling to Power

President Bashar Assad is losing his grip on power in Syria and he has responded by visiting death and destruction on his opponents. With momentum shifting in favor of the rebels, he seems capable only of intensifying the violence.

It's become very quiet. The cicadas and the birds have been silenced, and all you can hear is the sound of the wind rustling through the trees -- only occasionally interrupted by the clattering of tattered metal shutters and signs riddled with bullet holes. But human voices, the sound of cars and all the other sounds one associates with a city are gone.

In there place is a sporadic, high-pitched buzzing noise that approaches and then passes overhead. Sometimes, though, you don't even get that much warning before the roar of an explosion rips the air and the ground shakes half a kilometer away. It happens again and again, 20 times, 150 times, even 550 times a day. Each time, 50 kilograms (110 lbs.) of steel and explosives blast apart walls, decimate buildings and send showers of shrapnel into the air, ripping apart all surrounding life.

This is Rastan.

It was once a city of 55,000, set in an idyllic part of central Syria, between hills and a reservoir, almost exactly halfway between Homs and Hama.

Today Rastan is an inferno under siege, under attack from all sides by tanks, mortars and rocket launchers. All major access roads are closed. The mosques are riddled with artillery holes, and entire blocks have been reduced to rubble. Streetlights hang at bizarre angles between crumbled walls. A wholesale bakery that supplied the entire city was destroyed by shells months ago, the two water towers have been shot to pieces, and last week the last major food warehouse was struck by artillery fire and burned for a day and a half.

No one could have anticipated that Rastan would become a center of the resistance against the dictatorship of President Bashar Assad and his family. Rastan native Mustafa Tlass, who became the Syrian defense minister four decades ago and held that position for 32 years, turned the town into an elite training center for Sunni officers. About a fifth of the entire officers' corps comes from Rastan -- they may not be in the upper echelons, but there are many of them.

A Kind of Paralysis

Understanding Rastan is critical to knowing why this revolution has eaten its way so relentlessly through the country. The protest marches in Rastan were small and peaceful at first. As in other parts of the country, they were also brutally suppressed, first with clubs and then with guns. The residents of Rastan took up arms more quickly than those of other cities. The young officers, the sons of Rastan, were among the first to begin the armed resistance against the regime.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 people still live in the inferno of Rastan. All others have either been killed or have fled. But now that even the surrounding area has come under bombardment -- and regime troops have begun shooting people at their checkpoints on the outskirts of town for no apparent reason, a kind of paralysis has taken hold in Rastan.

Some endure out of defiance, sitting on chairs in front of their houses and saying that no one and nothing will drive them away. Others seem afraid to go anywhere at all, refusing to move so much as a meter, no matter how great the danger becomes. An old civil servant, for example, is sitting in the midst of piles of light gray rubble and claims that he wants to go to Homs soon, the equally devastated, almost completely inaccessible provincial capital. He says he wants to pick up his pay, which he hasn't received in seven months, and yet he hardly dares to leave his house anymore.

Staying in Rastan is madness. But the other madness, namely that a regime has declared war on its own cities, is spreading throughout Syria. It first affected Homs and Rastan, followed by Talbisa, a town between the two cities. Wherever Assad's troops encounter too much resistance, neighborhoods, villages and entire areas are then bombarded from a distance or from the air. Every change in the targeting of artillery triggers new waves of refugees, who are being driven from town to town, as afraid of moving as they are of staying in one place.

A great tension has descended on Syria. On the one hand, the regime remains militarily in control of almost the entire country, at least to the extent that it can strike anywhere at any time. On the other hand, it seems as if just a small jolt could lead to the collapse of the regime now that it's become clear that nothing can stop this rebellion.

A Fateful Explosion

That jolt may very well have come last Wednesday. An explosion shook the building that houses the National Security Council, in the expensive Damascus neighborhood of Maliki, where the Assad family lived until the uprising began. The bomb doesn't appear to have been particularly powerful, but its political impact was immense. The explosion put an end to a meeting among senior regime officials responsible for leading the war against the insurgency; it killed Assef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and his top military commander, the defense minister and another top official. The interior minister may also have died in the blast, though the Assad regime insists he was merely wounded. Tellingly, the one person who wasn't at the meeting was President Bashar Assad himself.

Hours later, the group "Liwa al-Islam," or Battalion of Islam, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The regime, for its part, said that a bodyguard had committed a suicide bombing. Although this would seem to make sense at first glance, given the name of the group, Liwa al-Islam disputes the government's version. According to a man who has long known the group, it was not a Sunni suicide bomber "but a Christian tradesman who placed the explosives." This is impossible to prove, and the notion that a Christian would help a group like Liwa al-Islam doesn't sound particularly convincing. Still, the story matches with Assad family's preference for relying on Christians or Alawites in sensitive areas rather than on Sunnis.

According to the source, repairs had to be made a month and a half ago to the suspended ceiling in the conference room where the group regularly met, a space about four by five meters in size (215 square feet). "When the tradesman received the job," reports the source, "he got in touch with Liwa al-Islam," which is loosely aligned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He placed explosives among the cables in the ceiling space, the source said. Then, the source went on, another informant from within the Syrian security council kept the group updated and reported when senior regime officials were going to meet there again -- which is why, he said, it took so long before the attack was perpetrated. The group didn't want to kill innocents, he said: "We aren't terrorists." The source says that the tradesman was out of the country within hours of the explosion but that his hometown must remain secret nonetheless: "Otherwise, they will destroy it."

In the days after the bombing, Assad began deploying tanks, helicopters and rockets in his own capital. And this week, bloody urban warfare has flared up in several quarters of Damascus. Still, the regime seems to be holding on to power in Damascus and central Syria.

'They Will Use Everything'

But its power appears to be disintegrating on the edges of the country. Troops stationed along the border with Israel have been ordered back to Damascus. Last Thursday, military personnel at two major border crossings to Turkey left their posts. The biggest border crossing to Iraq, at Abu Kamal, is also in rebel hands. Local residents and the FSA now control two sections of Aleppo, the commercial capital in the north, which had long remained quiet.

The final phase has begun. The regime will fall. But it isn't clear whether this will take days or weeks, or whether the crumbling of the regime's power along the edges will only lead to increased brutality in the center. It also isn't clear whether the predictions of Abu Bashar, a former intelligence agent from Rastan who defected to the FSA, will come true. He said, based on his long-standing and in-depth knowledge of the regime: "They will use everything they have if they go down. Everything!"

It was a sentiment seemingly underlined just days later, when a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman this week openly threatened that the Assad regime may use chemical weapons. He claimed that such weapons would never be used inside the country, he insisted, but warned they might become an option if Syria is "exposed to external aggression." According to regime propaganda, however, such aggression is already well underway. Since the beginning of the revolution, state-controlled media have consistently blamed the insurgency on "terrorists" and on an "international conspiracy." US President Barack Obama has warned Assad not to commit a "tragic mistake," but thus far all such warnings from abroad have fallen on deaf ears in Damascus.

Syria is estimated to have one of the world's largest arsenals of chemical weapons, including tons of Sarin, mustard gas and the nerve agent VX. It also has rockets with which it could disperse the toxic gas across a range of several hundred kilometers.

It's a scenario that has the Israelis especially concerned. Speaking at the occupied Golan Heights last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pointed out that he could hear the echoes of the fighting between the government and the opposition. "The breakup of the regime is by no means abstract," he warned. "It's real, and it's getting closer."

Blood Leading to the Entrance

For now, the regime is doing everything it can to hold onto the central part of the country. In Rastan last week, the only place left to treat the wounded was a small hospital operated by the rebels in one of the city's deepest basements. The entrance is hidden down two flights of stairs at the end of an alley in a small passageway between two houses. But the trail of blood leading to the entrance makes it easy to find.

Downstairs, in the pale fluorescent light, the last three doctors in the city take turns performing surgery. All other physicians are dead, have fled or have been taken away by the security services. A doctor is a dangerous thing to be in Syria these days. Those who treat protesters, not to mention FSA fighters, risk their lives.

Nurses in headscarves and the thin robes worn by conservative Muslim women fill syringes with quick flicks of the wrist and tear open the sterile packages with their teeth, so that they can simultaneously hold clamps, lights and equipment during the operations. No one sees them shedding a tear. It's the men who are weeping, like the old male nurse who, seemingly at the end of his rope, stands at the door, smoking and in tears, as one child after another is carried in.

A little boy, sliced apart by the shrapnel from a tank shell, lies wrapped in a blanket. His mother tries to hold him, but suddenly she has only his leg in her hand, and drops it with a scream of sheer terror. A 10-year-old boy is brought in who looks almost uninjured. For an hour and a half, a doctor and the nurses try everything possible to revive the boy, injecting him with adrenalin, massaging his heart and using defibrillator paddles, but to no avail. A piece of grenade shrapnel smaller than a fingernail has entered his heart through his back. His father carries the boy outside, wrapped in a white sheet.

Copious Amounts of Explosives

In the midst of the horror, there is also another microcosm in the basements of abandoned schools, party buildings and mansions in Rastan: the Katibas, the FSA brigades, which are better-organized and numerous in Rastan, the former officers' city, than anywhere else in Syria. There are 2,000 of them, including 130 officers. The Katibas use religious-sounding names, like "Men of God" or "Ali Ibn Abi Talib," named after the fourth caliph. Their leader, Lieutenant Faïs Abdullah, clean-shaven only seven months ago, now sports a large beard. He says that anyone who wants to fight alongside him has to believe in God.

A specific god?

It doesn't matter, he says. They can be Muslims, Druze or Christians.

But his 70 men can hardly be seen praying. Instead, they spend more time opening their Facebook pages, using the intermittent Internet connection on their satellite telephone. Their practical role model isn't the Prophet Muhammad, but an extremely popular Turkish actor who stars in TV series and lives in Syria, a James Bond wannabe who fights evil, engages in high-speed chases and uses copious amounts of explosives.

Later on, Faïs Abdullah says that the beard, the talk of religion and the promises of paradise have to be seen in a certain context: "What can I offer someone who is supposed to confront the tanks of Assad's army with not much more than a Kalashnikov?"

Within months, young officers here have become local commanders. Using Facebook and YouTube, they try to boost their profiles, get on Al-Jazeera programs and impress wealthy Syrian exiles and other financiers. The nominal FSA commander in Turkish exile, Riad al-Assad, has little to offer and no one under his command.

The Search for a Phantom

It seems hardly likely that the jihadists will take over after the regime has been overthrown. Instead, the country could face a struggle for influence among the Katibas, of which there are 22 in Rastan alone. The Katibas have joined forces to form a military council, but the largest of them, a brigade founded by a nephew of the former defense minister, has declined to join.

History may not repeat itself, but it does have a propensity for variations. Just as it was the longstanding defense minister, Mustafa Tlass, who turned Rastan into the city of officers, it was his relative, Lieutenant Abdul Rasak Tlass, who was one of the first to begin the armed resistance against the regime.

When we encountered Tlass in the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs last December, he was leading a small band of pitifully armed defectors. An attempt to meet him again this summer turns into a search for a phantom. Everyone knows his name and his Faruk Brigade is now the largest in Syria, with 7,000 men fighting under its banner in devastated Homs alone. But where is Tlass? First we are told he is in Homs, then in Rastan and then in Talbisa, always in a different place. After a week, a messenger arrives and tells us to be ready that evening. At the appointed time, a car arrives and takes us across the city to a house located hardly a hundred meters below a military tank position. No one would expect him to be here, says Tlass, probably the most wanted man in Syria. He sits down in the middle of the room.

It will only take a few weeks more to bring down the government, he says.

And then? Will he return to the new army as a lieutenant? He smiles briefly. "I will go where the people want to have me," he says. He has immense power, and he knows it. He also insists that the revolution is not an end in itself, "but it's a fight for our rights. We want democracy, not the next dictatorship!"

Last week, from their quarters in a wrecked building in the village of Saan, outside the city, the FSA fighters are looking at a kilometer-wide column of smoke over Rastan, a drone that's buzzing quietly in the air above them, and a helicopter in the distance that's already begun firing. They load a few grenade launchers, a machine gun and ammunition onto two pickups. "Bidna namut," says one of the men, "let's go die." As they depart, a young medic in glasses calls out asking one of those remaining behind to send his greetings to his father. Then they drive off in the direction of the wall of smoke.

A Bullet in the Head

In the towns tormented by Assad's army in the last few months, the troops have written graffiti on the walls. One saying that keeps appearing again and again reads: "Assad forever, or we burn down the country!"

When we leave Rastan, we can still see the wide column of dust and smoke for a long time. In the distance, in the midst of the green countryside, there are other black clouds over what were once the cities of Talbisa and Homs.

The cars leaving the city on this morning are transporting combatants, the wounded and the dead. Suddenly we manage to get a ride on a road where drivers are waiting every few kilometers and scouts are constantly monitoring the route. It's the road used to take the seriously injured out of the country. A patient, his wounds wrapped in makeshift bandages, lies under a blanket on the back of a small truck that's normally used to transport sheep. But what was meant to be his rescue becomes the last journey for the 25-year-old farmer Ubaid Darish Laban, who became engaged 10 days earlier, and who was struck by a bullet in the head. He dies after 40 kilometers.

The truck stops briefly so that the patient can be given a cardiac massage, but Laban's pupils are wide open and frozen. Nothing can bring him back. The truck turns around, back to his village, Umm Hamamia, to his family and to the cemetery. The news has hardly spread before dozens have gathered around the body.

At the cemetery, the men furiously hack into the sunbaked ground, as if it to vent their feelings of rage and helplessness. They tell the mother that she shouldn't weep, because Laban is now a martyr. While invoking paradise, they carry his lifeless body in a circle a few times, but before they can lower the dead man into his grave, a panic erupts. A helicopter has appeared on the horizon. The mourners scatter and take cover behind walls and olive trees. A handful of men, in defiance of death, complete the funeral. Then quiet returns to the small village cemetery in the middle of Syria.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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