The Battle for Syria: A Fight Against Assad and Against History

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Rebels struck their hardest blow yet today, but to succeed they will have to overcome not just Bashar al-Assad but a global history of uprisings that made it this far or farther and still failed.

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Syrian tanks move through Damascus. (AP).

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "the battle for the capital, the decisive fight" is today underway in Syria, he seemed to admit that even Russia, the Syrian regime's most important ally in the now 16-month conflict, could foresee the violent end of Bashar al-Assad's rule. It's not hard to understand why even Assad's staunchest defender now recognizes that the rebels could win, and maybe soon. Still, the military dictatorships of the world have faced rebellion before, and suffered defeats like today's, and have still held on to power. While anything is possible, and Assad could well be gone within the year or even the week, Syria would fit neatly within the dark and rarely remembered history of failed uprisings and successful crackdowns.

After four days, the rebels that began in the suburbs of Damascus have worked their way to within sight of the presidential palace. The government has deployed tanks, troops, and the massive anti-aircraft guns it's infamous for turning against civilians. Still, all the tanks in the world couldn't stop the bomb that made its way into Assad's inner circle this morning.

Not far from the fighting, Syrian military and intelligence leaders held an emergency meeting in the state national security building. It's still not clear how -- some sources say a body guard strapped with explosives, some claim it was remotely detonated -- an explosion tore through the room, killing some a number of the senior-most architects of the regime's brutal crackdowns and, now, its effort to hold on to power. The defense minister, a former defense minister who led the "crisis cell," the interior minister, and Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, who was closely involved with the military effort, were all killed.

Assad's inner circle is devastated, his control over the capital weakened, and now his personal security under question. "Who will replace these people?" a Lebanese military analyst asked the New York Times. "They are irreplaceable at this stage, it's hard to find loyal people now that doubt is sowed everywhere. Whoever can get to [brother in law] Asef Shawkat can get to Assad. ... Everyone, even those close to the inner circle, will now be under suspicion." High-profile defections from the regime have been increasing, if very slowly. After watching their bosses killed inside what is supposed to have been a secure nerve-center of the regime, how many generals will start eying the border?

It's no wonder that so many observers see the beginning of the end, Assad's death spiral, Syria's long-overdue "decisive battle" like the August 2011 rebel assault on Tripoli that ended Muammar Qaddafi's four-decade rule in three short days. And they could be right. Many things are plausible, including the imminent downfall of the dictatorship that has ruled Syria for 40 years.

Still, there is a long history of rebel groups breaching a capital city, or even killing top regime officials, and ultimately losing. Three of the bloodiest, nastiest civil wars of the 1990s saw days like today, and all three ended with the government staying in power and the rebels, for all their bombings and advances, defeated. Though is none identical to Syria's, of course, just as all wars are unique in their own unhappy way, the conflicts of Algeria, Sri Lanka, and El Salvador show that Assad would have precedent for hanging on.

In the spring of 1989, El Salvadorian leftist rebels, furious over failed peace talks, moved on the capital city, shattering the government's control. Their campaign captured parts of the city and killed swathes of regime officials: the minister of the presidency, the inspector general, even the director of the national fire department. They even spread into residential neighborhoods, targeting the homes of officials and military leaders. They continued attacking central government buildings through the next year, yet the war ended in 1992 a stalemate, with a peace accord that granted the rebels some amnesty but kept the government in power.

Algeria's decade-long war claimed over a hundred thousand lives, but no matter how hard the rebels fought or how brutal the military government became, the generals never lost power. The capital of Algiers was rarely at peace in 1992. One day after the defense minister pledged "implacable war" against the Islamist insurgency, in June of that year, rebels killed President Mohamed Boudiaf in a shocking, elaborate operation. The next year, they killed the prime minister. Yet the generals reorganized, coalescing their power and continuing the fight until, several years later, they had exhausted the rebel movement and won. Today, they are still in power.

Sri Lanka's long conflict between the government and ethnic minority rebels is far too brutal and complicated to be truly analogous to any war, particularly Syria's. Yet the rebel gains were at times so dramatic, and yet their ultimate defeat was so total, that it's a reminder of the difference between wounding a regime, no matter how severely, and actually toppling it. In 1991, suicide bombers killed 19 people in the capital, including the hardliner defense minister, a major victory for the rebels. Later that year, they killed 50 more, some of them top officials, at a major military headquarters. Two years later, they killed the president. Yet the government's forces became only more inhumanly brutal, and in a 2009 orgy of killing, they won.

The White House issued a statement this morning saying it's become "clear" that Assad is on his way out. And that might be right. Rebellions have shown less success than Syria's did today and still gone on to victory. But many have not. Before we start counting Bashar al-Assad among the victims of the Arab Spring, we should count the dictators who have faced days like today and are still standing.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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