Assad’s Status in Flux, Syrian Ambassador Declares War with Israel and U.S.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ready to step down, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reportedly told the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan Tuesday. Bogdanov said the deteriorating security situation in the wake of last month’s assassination of top regime figures is what may have led to Assad’s decision. The information has so far not been confirmed.
Meanwhile, Syrian Ambassador to Iran Hamed Hassan declared on Monday that Syria was at war with Israel and the U.S., calling the Israeli and American capitals the “axis of evil.”
“This is a bitter, persistent war,” Hassan said at a rally in support of Assad in Tehran on Monday. “The axis of evil based in Tel Aviv and Washington has been joined by Turkey and Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These countries are helping our enemies sow fear and panic in Syria and are even arming the terrorists that infiltrate Syria through the Turkish border.”
Russia’s Bogdanov said Assad’s brother, Maher, was seriously wounded in last month’s bombing. He said Maher Assad had lost both legs in the blast and was in critical condition. Maher Assad serves as the commander of Syria’s 4th Division and the Republican Guards, whose mission is to defend the capital of Damascus.
Among those killed in the bombing, which rocked the national security building in Damascus, were Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha and the president’s confidant and brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who also served as deputy defense minister and was instrumental in dealing with the 17-month insurgency in Syria. The bombing was attributed to the Free Syrian Army, one of the main rebel groups in the country.
Bogdanov said Russia would like to see an orderly transition of power, since this would be the only means of ending the bloodshed, Army Radio reported Tuesday.
Assad has previously said that he would not leave his post, despite repeated calls by both Arab leaders and the West. More than 15,000 have said to have died in the Syrian conflict since it began in March 2011. Israel has been worried about potential adverse ramifications from the civil war and the weakening of the centralized government in the event the regime implodes. Of particular concern is the fate of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles and its grip over global jihad elements, which would likely exploit the vacuum that would be generated if the rebels—a loose alliances of various Sunni groups—manage to topple the regime.
On Monday, Syrian rebels circulated a video on Monday of what they claimed was the downing of a warplane. The video showed armed men holding the captured pilot, who had ejected as the MiG fighter was engulfed by flames. Syria acknowledged that a pilot had bailed out of a disabled plane but blamed the crash on a technical malfunction.
The authenticity of the images or the claims could not be independently verified. If the rebels did bring down their first aircraft, that could signal a significant jump in their firepower and give opposition forces their most high-profile military captive.
But wider questions remain even if the rebel reports are confirmed, including whether this could be just a one-time blow against expanding air offensives by the forces of Assad’s regime. Just days ago, protesters across Syria pleaded for the rebels’ main backers—including Turkey and Gulf states—to send anti-aircraft weapons for outgunned fighters.
Assad’s military has significantly stepped up aerial attacks in recent weeks. Strafing from warplanes and close-range missile strikes from helicopter gunships have pushed back rebels in key fronts such as Aleppo, the country’s largest city and the scene of fierce attacks to dislodge rebel positions.
As the Syrian civil war rages on, supporters of Assad’s regime have been increasingly defecting. Most recently, on Monday the Organization of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria from its ranks.