One of the explosions on Mt. Qasioun, north of Damascus.
Early on Sunday morning, huge explosions rocked northern Damascus.
Scientists said that the explosions measured between two and three on the Richter scale, a scale designed to measure earthquakes. Giant balls of fire rose above Mt. Qasioun, a mountain that overlooks the capital and is at the center of Syria's largest military complex. The very symbol of Assad's control over Damascus was on fire.
Immediately, Syrian officials stated that an Israeli airstrike had hit a military installation in the area. Within a short time, unnamed American officials confirmed Israel had struck Damascus, a sign that the US government likely greenlighted the attack.
This strike took place within days of another Israeli airstrike that apparently targeted a shipment of rockets en route from the Syrian military to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
Some analysts have said that a stockpile of rockets, made in Iran and bound for Lebanon, was the target of this second strike.
However, this analysis ignores the fact that several important military installations appear to have been the targets of this most recent strike.
The Syrian government claimed that a military research facility was struck (map). In addiion, there have been many videos of the explosions, taken from many different angles, which suggest that a much wider range of targets, across a wider area of the military installation, were struck and not simply a convoy of rockets.
An initial analysis by Stroyful's Félim McMahon suggests that the research facility itself was not hit, but rather the nearby headquarters of the 104th Brigade. Beyond this, videos suggest that huge stockpiles of weapons, likely artillery shells and ballistic/artillery rockets, were also destroyed in the airstrike.
View Strike near Mount Qasioun (May 5, 2013) @felimmcmahon in a larger map
The 104th Brigade is an elite group of Republican Guards tasked with defending one of the most sensitive areas of Assad's defense network in the capital.
The precise locations of the targets are still being nailed down and confirmed, but some insurgent and civilian opposition leaders are reporting that an even wider stretch of area was hit:
IAF raided 12 targets including units of 4th division and air force intelligence without penetrating Syrian airspace.— Murhaf Jouejati (@mjouejati) May 5, 2013
The 4th Armored Divion is Assad's most important unit, run by his brother, Maher Al Assad. If the 4th Armored Division was indeed the target of the airstrike, this is a major blow to Assad and to the regime.
The Israeli airstrike did not target stockpiles of weapons deep in storage.
These are the most important fortresses that the regime maintains, and are instrumental to Assad's ongoing defense against the rebel offensive. These artillery and rockets from this area are used to routinely target insurgent positions, and civilian neighborhoods, all across the capital, from east to west, north to south.
These stockpiles are particularly important to Assad's efforts to retake Darayya, the largest suburb of Damascus which has been at the front lines of the fight for the capital for over six months. There are unconfirmed reports that the 4th Armored Division and the 155th Brigade SCUD missile base were also hit, but even if this is not the case, the Israelis have struck at some of Assad's most important bases, just kilometers from the Presidential Palace.
The message to Assad is clear. If the regime continues to move rockets across the border to aid Hezbollah, Israel willnot only strike at the immediate threat, but will deal serious body blows to the regime, severely hampering Assad's efforts to counter Syria's insurgency.
The question remains, however, as to whether destabilizing Assad was the ultimate goal of this airstrike. At the very least, Israel has proven that it is willing to pick a side and go all in if it feels threatened.
This incident should also permanently put to rest the debate as to whether Assad's air defense is capable of standing up to external threats. Assad is completely vulnerable, and has been dealt a serious blow. As a result, Israel may have completely changed the debate about foreign intervention in a single instant, and may have catalyzed an international drive to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.