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Was The Damascus Bombing A Game Changer?

A satellite image shows a general view of the Qabun neighborhood in Damascus on July 18.
For months, Syria's rebels have appeared to lack a coherent strategy as they have fought firefights with the far more powerful forces of President Bashar Assad's regime.

Now they may have found one.

By reaching into the heart of the regime's stronghold and assassinating three top officials – including Assad's brother in law – they have brought the battle firmly to Damascus.

And it is there, they say, the battle will remain.

Just hours after the bomb blast, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s Joint Command, announced, "We have transferred the battle from Damascus province to the capital.”

Then spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine added, "We only have light weapons, but it’s enough.”

Assad Vulnerability

Just how the rebels hope to win in Damascus is not clear. But some analysts say that by focusing on the capital, the rebels may be hoping to demonstrate to Syrians that Assad is weaker than he looks.

And that could offer the rebels the hope of a victory in a psychological war even when they remain too weak to hope for victory in a military one.

"I don't think the opposition, or the Free Syrian Army, has the capability of defeating the regime militarily," Nadim Shehadi, a regional expert with London's Chatham House, says. "It can defeat it mentally in the sense that it will influence people's calculations in whether they should defect or not and in whether they should come out on the streets or not."

The July 18 bombing gave a taste of how that might work. Immediately after news of the explosion spread, people took to the streets of several neighborhoods in Damascus to celebrate.

The street celebrations came despite the fact that rebel gunmen had been waging a losing battle with soldiers in some of those same areas over the past four days.

Likewise, Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says the psychological impact of the bombing was enormous.

"It's fair to say that the attack [on July 18] on the most sensitive national-security building in Damascus was a devastating blow, particularly psychological," Gerges says. "It shatters the morale of the regime and its supporters. We shall wait and see if the Assad regime can really overcome this particular major devastating blow."

An Escalation

The regime's immediate response showed that it is fully aware of the stakes. It flooded many areas of the capital with security forces. That was to visibly show its power even when it was reeling from the bombing its inner circle.

If the strategy for the rebels is now to hit the regime in ways that show its weakness, the intended audience may not only be their fellow Syrians.

Shehadi suggests that the goal may also be to convince Assad's remaining foreign allies -- principally Russia -- that backing him will create chaos, not contain it.

"[Assad] has been saying in his interviews that if he is destabilized the region will turn into ten Afghanistans," Shehadi says. "This is the mind-game that keeps Assad in power, and it plays on people's fears, mainly the fears of policy makers in the international community who cannot see beyond the regime. And so what happened yesterday will in a way reshuffle the cards. It's now looking like Assad is the problem rather than the solution."

But whether Russia will hear that message is an open question. Moscow, along with China, has so far blocked any efforts to include the threat of sanctions in UN efforts to press Assad to find political solutions to the conflict.