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

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.

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

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