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. “In many ways, pulling off these kinds of operations will destabilize the government more than anything else.”
Rebels say intelligence gathered from the growing number of defectors is making operations more effective. They also claim to have swung a number of sources still working inside the regime to their side. “You’re going to see a lot of specialized missions that hit the heart of the government using sensitive information,” says Anwar Saadedine, a former general in the Syrian military who now works with the main rebel military council based in Turkey.
Different groups have claimed credit for the July bombing, and the details remain unclear—rebels say the bomb was detonated remotely, and the regime claims it was a suicide mission. But a man in his mid-20s who gave the nickname Abu Hail has a voice that matches the one nervously announcing the blast in a video many believe was shot by someone involved in the operation. Fixed on the state security headquarters, apparently in advance, it shows smoke rising from the building as a voice behind the camera predicts that Assad will be brought down by people inside his own regime. “Whoever took the video knew something was about to happen there,” one regional security expert told Reuters at the time.
In an interview with Newsweek, Abu Hail says his role had been to store the premade bombs at his home, then deliver them to the headquarters, where another member of the operation snuck them inside. Abu Hail says the bombs—“high-tech” and “very sophisticated”—were planted above the ceiling tiles in a room where the crisis cell regularly met. There were two failed attempts to detonate them, he added, in the weeks before the blast: “If they had exploded at the right time, there would be no one left.”
On July 18, Abu Hail was prepared for another failure. He was eating fruit near the window when he got the call—“Record! Record! Record!”—and rushed for the camera he’d trained on the headquarters, reaching into his pocket for the statement he’d prepared. “My voice was shaking,” he says. “I just wanted to read that paper and get the f--k out of there.”
Abu Hail says he thought operations like the bombing would have a psychological effect on the regime. “It’s like a nerve war—like propaganda to get them scared and get them to defect,” he says. “To get them thinking: ‘Maybe we’re going to be killed.’”
Bombings are becoming a regular feature of Damascus life. In addition to the targeted operations, the rebels have claimed, car bombs explode in civilian areas, often bringing with them competing allegations about who is to blame. Two car bombings were reported in Damascus on Friday.
On the day of the blast targeting the Joint Chiefs, a Damascus-based activist who goes by the name Alexia Jade said some residents were “apprehensive about what comes next. In other words: what will be the payback for this?”
At the same time, residents say the regime has been shelling parts of the city at a constant pace. The toll of mounting a ground campaign in Damascus, some rebels say, is part of the rationale behind the special-operations push. “We don’t want a street war,” says Hasan Kamil, a former political activist who has been working to coordinate the rebel efforts in Damascus. “We tried street war. We need to bring this to the center of the government.”
The rebels have shown that they can control territory in many parts of the country, notes the ISW’s Asher Berman. In Damascus, however, the regime remains in control—the main strength of its security apparatus is based there. “The regime penetration in Damascus is very strong, whereas it’s receding elsewhere in the country,” Berman says.
The armed resistance gained new stature this summer with surprise pushes into Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two most important cities. But the regime countered with a brutal show of force, using warplanes and artillery to pound civilian areas along with rebel positions. In the suburbs of Damascus, a surge of violence has taken hold, with shells battering neighborhoods the regime suspects of harboring rebel support. Mass killings have been reported after rebels are pushed out. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that some 26,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far.
The regime clearly has the upper hand when it comes to military might. “They understand that with normal operations, they won’t make any change,” the Observatory’s Sipan Hassan says of the rebels’ special-operations push. “The regime is strong and well-supported. And the rebels don’t have any heavy weapons.”
A spokesman for Ahrar al Sham, one of the largest and most effective rebel groups with fighters throughout Syria, says the need for special operations has been clear from the start. “We depend on our intelligence, not the size of our force,” says the spokesman, who goes by the nickname Abu Baker. “We try to keep from pushing big numbers of people into a war zone. The rebels can’t match the Syrian regime in terms of weapons or numbers of soldiers.”
Ahrar al Sham is considered an Islamist group, and Abu Baker was sensitive to the idea that things like roadside bombs could be portrayed in a negative light. He stressed that rebels avoid civilian casualties at all costs, a point pushed by other groups as well. “We’ve had to stop a lot of operations because of civilians going by,” Abu Baker says.
As the rebels push ahead into new territory with targeted operations, notes Holliday, the ISW analyst, they will be toeing a difficult line. “It raises huge questions about the legitimacy of what they’re doing,” he says.
Recuperating from a leg injury in a city along the Turkish border recently, a former Syrian intelligence officer, who goes by the nickname Abu Laise, described some kidnapping operations in detail. On his mobile phone, he showed a video of himself using a leather strap to savagely beat a man he says was an informant. “I’ll do anything you guys want,” the man in the video said.
Laise says he has executed a number of kidnapped prisoners after videotaping confessions of atrocities he says warranted death. One such confession had been elicited just by putting a gun to the suspect’s head. “I didn’t even torture him,” he says. “I wouldn’t kill anyone that has nothing to do with anything.”
In claiming Sunday’s bombing, the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade cited a recent mass killing in the Damascus suburb of Daraya as a motivation for the attack, calling it “revenge.”
Ameer, the Ahfad al-Rasul spokesman, was busy at work on a special operations manifesto last week.
But he already had a rationale in mind as far as the operations are concerned. “There’s a special place in hell for people who sit neutral in situations where there’s a clear right and wrong,” he says. “Before, we used to say we didn’t want to target military headquarters, because some people might be in a difficult situation—might be forced to be there. Now the only people left are supporters of the regime. Neutral is not possible anymore.”
Abu Hail declined to say what group he worked with on the bombing in July—only that more operations were on the way. The video claims it was carried out by the “Hawks Special Operations Battalion.” Citing a source familiar with the group, the Reuters report described it as “composed of ex-army officers who are ‘the most professional among the rebels groups.’”
But many rebels tasked with special operations were regular civilians when the revolution began. Abu Hail says he’d lived a regular 9-to-5 life. He started his opposition to Assad by spraying graffiti—“The people of Syria want to hang you, Bashar” was his favorite tag—and when the fighting turned violent, he moved to weapons smuggling, then learned to make bombs. “This revolution taught us everything,” he says.
For Barazi, even the seemingly simple killing of the intelligence officer last month had its bumps. The two men in the guest bedroom were new, and they hesitated when Osman came down the hall, leaving Barazi to confront the man himself. The smooth operation turned into a frenzied struggle—Barazi recounted stabbing Osman repeatedly before he was finally subdued. “It was more like a street fight than an assassination,” he says.