Saturday, May 25, 2013
By BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH, DEBBI WILGOREN AND LIZ SLY / The Washington Post
BEIRUT – Widespread violence erupted on the streets of Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces and pro-government militias lashed out in revenge for a bombing that killed at least three of the most crucial figures in the nation's military establishment, calling into question President Bashar al-Assad's control even over his capital.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, is seen in 2011 with Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, right. Rajha was killed Wednesday in a suicide blast inside the National Security building in Damascus, during a meeting of Cabinet ministers.
The Associated Press
The blast targeted a meeting of the top security chiefs charged with overseeing a crackdown against the country's 16-month-old revolt. The bombing suggesting that the rebels have managed to penetrate the most loyal core of Assad's inner circle of advisers.
The dead included Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha; Hassan Turkmani, a former minister of defense who headed the regime's crisis management cell; and Asef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law and deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military.
The government denied news reports that other top figures were also killed in the late morning bombing at the National Security Building in the heart of one of the capital's most upscale and closely guarded neighborhoods. But the significance of the identities of those confirmed dead was not lost on Syrians or the wider international community.
"It's obvious that what's happening in Syria represents a real escalation in the fighting," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday at a Pentagon news briefing. "This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control."
The rebel Free Syrian Army said its loyalists planted bombs inside a room where the government's central command unit for crisis management was to meet to discuss efforts to crush the uprising.
The bombs were detonated remotely from outside the building once the meeting was under way, said Col. Malik Kurdi, the rebel group's deputy commander. "The Free Syrian Army carried out this attack in retaliation for the massacres committed by the regime and because of the international silence," Kurdi said. "We promised that we are going to hit the regime in its most sensitive axis. This was necessary for us."
The government said others at the meeting were injured. Some news outlets reported that Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar was badly hurt and eventually died from his wounds, but the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said he and another official identified only as Lt. Gen. Hisham were in "stable" condition. The agency was apparently referring to Hisham Bakhtiar, Assad's national security chief.
The White House said President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the deteriorating situation in Syria by telephone Wednesday morning. Obama cautioned Putin that maintaining Russia's alliance with the Assad regime would put his country on the "wrong side of history," press secretary Jay Carney said.
That the bomber was able to penetrate so deeply into the heart of the establishment could have a powerful effect on morale, not only within Assad's cabinet but also across the ranks of the military and regime supporters who have thus far remained loyal.
Within hours, fresh defections from security services around the country were reported, as well as revenge attacks by Assad loyalists in Damascus. Although the reports could not be immediately confirmed, they demonstrated the potential for the bombing to rapidly accelerate the disintegration of the government, and to trigger even greater chaos.
Damascus residents reported that pro-government militiamen known as shabiha were swarming into the streets of several Damascus neighborhoods, bent on exacting vengeance. According to one eyewitness in the Shaghour neighborhood of the historic walled Old City, militiamen were breaking down doorways and killing families with knives. The man, who asked not to be named, said he was watching scenes of panic from the roof of his building, as both men and children, carrying guns and knives, ran into the street to try to defend the area against the militiamen.
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