Syrian forces have sent a blunt message to opposition fighters who claim to have made great strides against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, culminating in the assassination Wednesday of three senior regime officials: We have not yet begun to fight.
With details of the deadly bomb blast slowly beginning to emerge – of explosives hidden inside the room where Syria's top security brass gathered to meet – the army forces pounded opposition strongholds in the capital Thursday, bombarding areas by night and rooting out fighters by day.
"They will cut off every hand that tries to hurt the security of the nation or its citizens," vowed General Fahad Jassim al-Freij, who was rapidly sworn in as Defence Minister Thursday, replacing General Daoud Rajiha who had been killed in that bombing. "This cowardly terrorist act will not deter our men in the armed forces from continuing their sacred mission of pursuing the remnants of these armed terrorist criminal gangs."
Worried about what may happen next, thousands of Syrians, many from Damascus and its environs, made their way Thursday across the border to take refuge in Lebanon.
But the collapse anticipated by so many has yet to materialize.
Indeed, the armed forces' two most powerful units – the elite 25,000-man 4th Armoured Division, a ruthless contingent commanded by Maher al-Assad, the President's brother, and the super-elite 25,000-man Republican Guard responsible for protecting the President – wait in the wings in case they are needed, said a former senior Syrian official who left the government last year but remains in close contact with many of its members.
Both divisions are made up mostly of members of the Alawite sect from which the Assads hail and are based in the Damascus area. While elements of the 4th Division saw action earlier this year, most notably in the bloodbath at Baba Amr in Homs in February, "these forces have been kept largely in reserve," said the former official who would only speak anonymously for fear of reprisal.
For all the gains the opposition has celebrated this week in taking the fight to Damascus for the first time, the effects of these actions are marginal he said. "Their psychological impact is greater than their material impact."
Young officers in the capital, for example, were clearly rattled by what happened Wednesday, he pointed out, "which is why the regime moved quickly to calm them."
The speedy appointment of Defence Minister al-Freij, along with the massive overnight bombardment, would have achieved that.
"Watch for the military to take a more hardline approach now," he added.
Indeed, residents of parts of Damascus were given 48 hours to leave their homes Thursday as the military forces prepared a counterattack to rid the capital of rebel fighters by this weekend.
President al-Assad is "inevitably on his way out of power," the former official acknowledged. "It's just a question of when and under what circumstances he goes."
But this week's bombing did very little to speed up that process, he argued. "It's still likely to be a matter of months – not years or weeks – unless something irrational happens."
"If the civil service, for example, all rose up and left their posts, that would cause the regime to unravel much faster," he explained. Or if large numbers of the army refused to fight, he added.
Defections, so far, have been relatively small in number and very small in effect. This means that unless the international community does something, it's left to the country itself to unravel.
The so-called Friends of Syria, the cluster of Western and other nations who met recently in Paris, has admitted there's no opposition group ready and able to take power.
Even the rebel Free Syrian Army that took credit for Wednesday's deadly bombing "would prefer that the regime not fall soon," said the former official, lest control of the country fall into the wrong hands, a reference to jihadists from Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt and elsewhere who have entered the country during the past several months of turmoil.
Indeed, on Thursday there was a report that a number of Syrian border posts along the Iraqi and Turkish frontiers were overrun by opposition forces, many of them dressed in dishdashas, a traditional Arab robe popular among so-called jihadists.
At one post, Iraqi border guards reportedly witnessed rebel fighters detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel and then cut off his arms and legs.
Iraq's deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Assadi, told Agence France-Presse by telephone that the fighters then "executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers."
The report could not be independently verified.