from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Breakdown in Damascus?

August 9, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The use of deadly force against peaceful demonstrators has been the hallmark of the Assad reaction to protests, and yesterday the King of Saudi Arabia referred to this practice as Assad’s "killing machine." A key question is whether and when the armed forces will resist--will begin to wonder what kind of future Syria has, and they have in Syria, as the killing escalates.

The survival of the regime is at stake, for it is surviving now on brute force alone.

It is in that context that the death of the man who was an Assad intimate and his Defense Minister, Ali Habib, is so striking. There were reports that he had objected to the use of the military in Hama. And according to news reports, after being fired Monday Habib was found dead in his home Tuesday. The official news agency noted that he had been suffering from a deterioration in his health. As we are talking about Assad’s Syria, that deterioration may have been very rapid indeed: it may have occurred immediately after he was shot.

Habib rose through the ranks, had been an important military figure for nearly twenty years, and had been defense minister for two. He was a regime stalwart. That Assad felt the need not only to sideline him but--if the reports are accurate--to have him killed shows a regime truly falling apart. The decision to kill Habib would have been meant as a warning to other generals to stick with the Assads or face a similar fate, but may have the opposite effect: it might persuade some of them that Assad is leading them, the army, and the country to disaster. This is the kind of thing that leads to defections and coups, and if the army cracks the regime won’t last long.

Update: The latest reports suggest that Habib was indeed removed from office but is alive. His removal continues to raise questions about dissonance within the military. It may not be until the fall of the regime that the full truth about this incident, including the false reports of his death, comes out.

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