It may not be - to borrow one of Winston Churchill's phrases - the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning has certainly passed for the brutal regime led by Bashar al-Assad of Syria. In a precise and well-executed exercise, a bomb exploded during a meeting of the war cabinet on Wednesday, killing three of President Assad's most senior associates and maiming several others. The attack signals the start of a new phase in the conflict between rebels who want the regime to go and the coterie of loyalists who are keeping Assad in power.
We aren't sure whether the bomb was placed by a trusted insider and triggered remotely or whether that insider strapped the explosives to his body and set them off at the moment when it would be most effective. However it was achieved, the explosion has certainly blown apart the utterly reliable inner circle upon which Assad has relied to maintain control over the state he has ruled since his father died a dozen years ago and upon which he was counting to beat back the rebellion which began 16 months ago.
Every day since early in the rebellion, ministers and senior security officials have met at the national security headquarters in central Damascus to hear reports of new attacks by the rebels, how the army and secret police have dealt with them as well as to discuss and issue new orders. On Wednesday, the bomber struck, even as battles raged in the heart of the Syrian capital within sight of the presidential palace.
The three who died were all generals. Assef Shawkat was deputy minister of defence and was married to Assad's only sister, Bushra. Like Assad, he was an Alawite - an adherent of a branch of Shi'ite Islam in a country that is overwhelmingly Sunni - and was a pillar of Assad's rule. The defence minister, Daoud Rajiha, was appointed to that office a year ago, mostly because of his religious affiliation. A member of the Greek Orthodox church, Rajiha was selected for the post in order to retain the support of the country's Christian minority. Deputy vice-president Hassan Turkmani was around for a long time and once served as defence minister. He was also chief of crisis operations, which gave him a free hand to crush the opposition through whatever means he deemed appropriate. The wounded include the chief of intelligence, Hisham Bekhtyar, and the minister of the interior, Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar.
Speculation soon spread that Assad had been wounded in the bombing, a state of affairs bolstered by the fact that he wasn't seen in public for more than 24 hours. He finally appeared on television on Thursday to swear in a replacement for the dead defence minister. It now seems clear that his power and influence are waning quickly, adding to the sense of uncertainty surrounding the whole Syrian question.
It's also clear that diplomatic efforts at the United Nations have failed. Those efforts never had much of a chance of success, but many felt they had to at least go through the motions. The UN called in a former Secretary General Kofi Annan, who visited Damascus and tried to negotiate with Assad - to no avail. He presented peace plans which failed to gain traction. Russia and China have used their veto power to block attempts by the US, Britain, France and others to impose sanctions on Assad's government if it didn't stop using violence.
The rebel forces, until recently conducting hit-and-run raids and guerrilla operations in the countryside and some smaller cities, have now brought the fight to the capital. Both sides are fighting with a ferocity which arises from the certainty of what will happen to the loser. And it now appears that the only question about the outcome is not whether, but merely when, the opposition will triumph.
But that's when the trouble really starts.
Several external parties have vested interests in the outcome. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other interests on the western rim of the Persian Gulf have been financing the rebels, and other western security agencies have played active roles. The rebels are armed with weapons smuggled across Syria's borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Turkey, which abuts Syria to the north, has been sheltering those who have fled the regime and is also helping the opposition. Iran supports Assad, and the more his regime is threatened, the more it worries. Adding to the worries is pressure from Washington, which wants Assad gone but which is also Israel's biggest backer. Israel, in turn, is worried about Iran's nuclear plans and is itching to do something to stop it.
The Free Syrian Army, which is leading the opposition to the Assad regime, consists largely of defectors from the Syrian armed forces. They are lightly armed, since when they desert their units all they can take are small arms such as the AK-47 rifle and perhaps a few rocket-propelled grenades. The army, on the other hand, has considerable advantage in armaments - tanks, field guns and missiles, armoured personnel carriers and aircraft - traditionally supplied by the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia. The FSA claims that its only objective is to get rid of Assad and his cohorts, and that its members include adherents of all of Syria's religious groups. But there is always the possibility that upon achieving success, the majority Sunnis may want to dominate whatever government emerges at the expense of the Shi'ites, and Assad's minority Alawites, the Christians, Druze and others. And that would open a whole new can of worms.
In the meantime, there will be much fighting, and unfortunately, much blood to be spilt. Assad can still count on the loyalty of the armed forces under his brother, Maher, and has taken charge of the military crisis unit. He makes all the daily decisions, from the deployment of army units, what the security services should be doing, to the mobilisation of the Shabbiha, an Alawite militia responsible for a series of massacres in recent weeks.
Just last month he said that his country was at war and the government should therefore spare no effort to defeat the opposition, whom he described as terrorists. Assad began his working life as an eye doctor, and used that to illustrate his point: "When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound do we say to him: 'Your hands are covered in blood?'"
"Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"
Further to last week - there's many a slip between brain, eyes and fingers. In describing how the United States achieved its position of international supremacy, I omitted to mention one vital factor: its mighty military muscle, unprecedented
in the history of the world. The US alone accounts for just under half of the world's military spending. It has the most sophisticated (and frightfully expensive) aircraft, ships and armour the world has ever seen and operates a string of bases around the globe. There are 38 large and medium-sized US air and naval bases abroad; at the height of its imperial power in 1898, Britain had 36 external naval bases and army garrisons. And interestingly enough, at its zenith in 117 AD, the Roman Empire needed 37 major bases to control its realm, which spread from Britain and Spain to Egypt and Armenia.