Robert Fisk: Syria rebels will not claim their greatest prize

The appalling scenes in Syria begin to reflect the barbarism of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia

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They have gone for the jugular now. The brother-in-law of the President, the Defence Minister, a massive bomb close to – or in – the headquarters of the military apparatus run by the President's own brother. Assassinations take time to plan, but this was on an epic scale, to match the bloodbath across Syria.

Bashar al-Assad's own sister, Bushra, one of the pillars of the Baath party, loses her husband in a massive explosion in the very centre of Damascus. No wonder the Russians talk about the "decisive battle".

It won't be a replay of Stalingrad, but the tentacles of the rebellion have now moved towards the heart. And, of course, there are massacres to come. Why else would thousands of Syria's citizens flee to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp yesterday, to seek protection from the most betrayed citizens of the Arab world?

And there is hatred enough to maintain this savage strike at the Syrian government. Eight months ago, during one of the massive pro-regime demonstrations in the Rawda district, I walked past the very intelligence-security establishment which was bombed yesterday.

At the time, a Syrian friend of mine looked at it bleakly. The torture goes on below ground, he said. "You don't even want to know what happens there." But whoever emerged from there would be happy to kill his tormentors, let alone the chief torturers.

The people's anger will embrace a duke or two. It was typical that, in their desperation to fill the vacuum left by yesterday's assassinations, the regime chose a nonentity, Fahd Jassim al-Furayj, to fill the job of Defence Minister – a man who comes from Hama, the centre of every major uprising against Syria's rulers.

We have a habit, we Westerners, of always looking at the Middle East through our own cartography – the Middle East is "east" of "us", isn't it? – but tip the map on end and you realise how close Syria is to Chechen Muslim irredentists. No wonder Moscow fears the rebellion in Syria.

And old Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar – he used to worry in his last years that a rebellion in Syria would take the form of the terrible conflict which he followed daily on television: the break-up of "secular" Yugoslavia, whose sectarian divisions were then remarkably similar to Syria's today. And weirdly, although the throat-cutting, the militia massacres of civilians and the slaughter of children parallel the 1990s war in Syria's Algerian ally, the appalling scenes from Syria do now begin to reflect the barbarism of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

What can Bashar do now? Another Syrian friend put an interesting question to me the other day. Suppose the Alawite Shia President Bashar decides to flee, he said. "He will be driven to the airport by an Alawite colonel. Will the colonel let him go? I doubt it."

So two gloomy predictions. Yes, Bashar may still hang on longer than we think. And he won't leave; his brother Maher, who runs the so-called 4th Brigade, may be a different matter. But tanks in the streets of Damascus, the oldest inhabited city in the world, and the shooting can be heard from the presidential palace; these are unprecedented days. Why, a few times yesterday, even Syrian television was forced to tell the truth. The verdict? Going, but not yet gone.

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