A Campaign of Decapitation

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Giglio

The Syrian rebels step up stealth assassination, kidnappings, and attacks.

One night last month, in an upscale neighborhood of central Damascus, a muscular man waited in the master bedroom of a large apartment, holding a folding knife. The plan was simple: two of his comrades would hide in a guest room down the dark hall. When the target came home, they would pin him down, and the enforcer would come in for the kill. The assassination would be quiet and quick. When it was through, the attackers would slip back into the night. The knife clicked as the assailant pulled the blade from its sheath.

Sitting on his couch in Damascus last week, the man, whose nom de guerre is Shirzad Barazi, held a pair of identity cards to the video camera atop his computer screen that he says belonged to the middle-aged man he killed that night in the hall. The ID cards showed Mohamed Abid Osman, an employee of Syria's state security department, whose government ID number was 74324, and whose job as an intelligence officer, Barazi says, was to help the Syrian regime kill civilians.

Barazi leads a small band of rebels operating in central Damascus and specializing in targeted killings--hunting people it believes are party to the Syrian regime's crackdown on an 18-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. "It's just like surgery," he says. "You go into a place full of security, and you leave everything else untouched."

Barazi claimed to have gunned people down in front of their homes, and remotely detonated roadside bombs. "We do special operations," he says. "Our job is to assassinate members of the regime."

Many rebels believe this is the direction of their war in Syria: targeted, secretive, and specialized--what Joseph Holliday, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, calls a "decapitation campaign."

In recent weeks, rebels say, they have intensified plans for such a push in central Damascus, where the highest-profile targets are based--the officers and senior officials who form the core of the regime. The buzzword among rebels these days is "surprise," and they maintain that there are many in store. "The regime is using its air force and heavy guns, and the rebel army can't fight back," says Mufa Hamze, the vice president of the revolutionary military council for the rebel Free Syrian Army in Damascus. "The natural response is for us to launch operations that directly target the regime. Hit and run is the tactic that's going to be used now."

Earlier this month, a bombing targeted the headquarters of Syria's Joint Chiefs of Staff. It sits in one of the city's most secure areas, and on the day of the attack, the rebel brigade claiming responsibility said they planted the bombs inside the building itself, using people "on the inside." Details remain murky--residents reported ambulances flocking to the scene, and rebels claimed heavy casualties. State television, meanwhile, said that just four people had been hurt.

Regardless of the outcome, the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, which claimed responsibility, says the bombing was a preview of what is to come. "These operations are very cheap, and they hit the regime where it hurts the most," says a spokesman for the brigade in Damascus who gave the name Nabil al-Ameer.

The Rasul brigade claimed responsibility for a bombing near the same site last month that drew headlines for damaging a nearby hotel used by U.N. monitors. In May, rebels from a different brigade attempted to poison members of the regime's "crisis management" cell, claiming to have gotten access from a bodyguard. And four members of that cell, all part of Assad's inner circle, were killed by a bomb planted inside the state security headquarters in July. "The regime has never looked shakier than when they knocked those four guys off. That was the biggest wake-up call of this conflict, inside the country and out," Holliday says. …