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Assad regime slowly slipping into oblivion

LIKE some sandcastle crumbling under the relentless onslaught of an incoming tide, President Bashar al Assad's regime is slipping into oblivion.

Already his rule has been weakened by a series of high-profile defections over the last few weeks.

But it was the 25lb of TNT said to be embedded in a flowerpot and a smaller quantity of C4 plastic explosive laced inside a box of chocolates that not only eviscerated Mr Assad's key security aides in Damascus on Wednesday, but effectively turned the tide in the opposition's favour.

Across Syria the impact of that single bomb strike along with the simultaneous rebel uprising within the capital – dubbed Operation Damascus Volcano – has punctured the psychological advantage the regime's superior military strength has up until now provided.

Virtually overnight, the loyalty of many within the ranks of the Syrian forces has been pushed to tipping point and a cowed populace has grown in confidence with the belief the rebels' moment has come.

However, watching events unfold in Damascus yesterday you could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise, as the regime's tanks, troops and feared shabiha militia launched a ferocious counter offensive in a number of contested districts.

So, just where do things go from here? Certainly in the short-to-medium term at least, the obvious answer to that is from bad to worse.

As far as President Assad himself is concerned the rumour mill remains rife given that as of yesterday he had made no public appearance or statements since Wednesday's bomb blast. Indeed, rumours circulated that Mr Assad himself may have been injured in the blast or have fled the capital with his British-born wife Asma, but state television showed footage of him swearing in a new defence minister.

Mr Assad of course may simply be keen to give the impression that it's all business as usual, but the situation on the ground makes any such smokescreen ridiculous.

Indeed, it's not only the rebels battling in the street of Damascus that Mr Assad should be worried about. As pressure on the regime grows there is always the possibility other members of Syria's elite inner circle may attempt to supplant the al Assad clan.

According to analysts at the independent global intelligence think tank Stratfor, it may even be in the interests of Syria's allies like Russia and Iran to help engineer such a coup, enabling them to maintain a government in Damascus that remains friendly to their interests.

No doubt those pulling the strings of such a coup attempt would hope this new "inclusive" regime would help take the sting out of an opposition baying for regime blood and might help maintain some semblance of structure, thus avoiding a power vacuum leading to a prolonged civil war.

That said, serious question marks remain over the ability of Syria's allies to orchestrate such a coup amid the turmoil of a regime fighting for its very survival.

What's more, any proposed compromise deal on the makeup of a post-Assad government is unlikely to wash with a rebel opposition now clearly in the ascendancy. Not least given that there is no one cohesive united rebel group but a myriad of factions, many with conflicting motives and long-term political or sectarian ambitions.

Those battles, of course, have yet to come. For the time being at least, the shaky rebel alliance remains hell-bent on the common mission of ousting Mr Assad.

To that end, the rebels' battlefield prowess of late has been increasingly impressive and bears all the hallmarks of an insurgency clearly in receipt of substantial logistical and tactical support – cue the CIA, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others.

While the focus of the last few days has been on Damascus, elsewhere rebel pockets have consolidated their base in most of Syria's key governorates, especially Idlib.

This area is important because of its location just south-east of the Turkish province of Hatay, from where rebel forces secure massive quantities of supplies and reinforcements.

Should Idlib city fall this would create a continuous stretch of opposition-held territory that would link rebel fighters in the Idlib and Aleppo governorates.

This in turn would further isolate Syria's second-largest city Aleppo, and facilitate the rebels' attempts to establish a corridor connecting the Turkish and Lebanese borders while blocking Damascus from the Syrian coast.

This week's rebel assault on Damascus was timed to coincide with the lead up to Ramadan, which starts today. For many ordinary Syrians this year's Ramadan will be one full of bloodshed and suffering rather than piety and reflection. As one rebel activist contextualised Wednesday's bombing in the capital: "Today we cut off the head of the snake, but we still have the tail."

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