It has to come to this in Damascus: Wednesday's rebel bomb attack on a meeting of Bashar al-Assad's top lieutenants, killing at least three. The war has come to the House of Assad itself. Syria's dictatorship had rested on a dynasty, and the terror had to be visited on the dynasty. There could be no airtight security for the rulers.
Asef Shawkat, the ruler's brother-in-law and deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, was a big player in the regime. He was of a piece with this sordid lot. He had risen from poverty, an Alawite soldier who came to power and fortune when he married the late dictator Hafez Assad's only daughter. In the politics of this secretive cabal, it was said that Shawkat was a rival of Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the ruler, who commands its killer brigade.
A maternal cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, was also struck down. The specialty of the Makhlouf cousins was large-scale plunder. They sat astride the crony economy, greedy caterpillars of the realm and bag-men of the House of Assad.
The killing of the defense minister, Daoud Rajha, is of a lower order of importance. A Christian, he was a figurehead in a regime that exalted and trusted only the dominant sect, the Alawites.
The Assads can be said to have brought the Alawites both spoils and peril. They took them—a historically despised community—from the destitution of the mountains, and gave them a dominion of four decades. The edifice was unnatural, a majority Sunni society with pride as to its place in Islamic history submitting to the rule of a "godless" bunch of schismatics.
A merchant-military nexus gave the regime some cover. Sunni and Christian businessmen bought into the Assad enterprise, seeing it as a way of keeping Syria's fissures from getting worse. The rebellion that broke out some 17 months ago came out of the neglected countryside, the rural Sunni society that had been marginalized and robbed in the rapacious economy of the Makhloufs and the Assads. The regime held on, believing that every new dose of terror would do the trick.
For the good length of this rebellion, Damascus itself was kept out of the fight. There was no love lost for the regime in the warrens and the mosques of that old, broken city. Fear did the trick: The crack units of the regime were based in Damascus. This was, inevitably, where the regime would stand or fall.
An early resolution of this grim war would have kept intact the institutions of the Syrian state, such as they are. It would have enabled the Alawites to walk away from the wreckage, dissociate themselves from the crimes of the Assads, and reach an accommodation with the Sunni majority. But Bashar al-Assad has been sly: He made sure that the Alawites, as a community, were implicated in the recent massacres that have poisoned the well between these two communities.
Alawite villagers were unleashed on their neighbors. They killed at close range. The survivors knew the killers, they had gone to school with them. The fiction that this was regime violence was shredded in the recent horrific massacres. There was method in the cruelty, and this will make itself felt in the phase to come: The Alawite-based regime was rounding out the borders of an Alawite homeland.
The recent killings in the villages of Houla and Tremseh were done on the fault-line between the Alawite mountains and the Sunni plains. In this script, the Alawites would make a run for it, quit Damascus and Homs—cities where their presence had been negligible in past decades—and make a stand in the Alawite mountains and the coast adjoining them. In this scenario, there would be a horrific fight for Damascus. The Alawite military barons and the enforcers alike have grown used to the ease of urban life. The fabled mountains could no longer sustain them.
Forgotten in this descent of Syria into the abyss are the hopes once pinned on Assad. He had married well—a Sunni woman of Homsi background, London-born—and he had talked of reform. His country was desperate to believe him and grant him time. The protesters had started out with graffiti and placards, pleading for reform. A handful of boys in the forlorn southern town of Deraa had started it all: Inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, they scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls.
But this regime only knew the rule of the gun. Some 27 "torture centers" cover the country, according to Human Rights Watch. In this first YouTube civil war in our time, the videos tell of a regime that grew more cruel as official panic set in. The Syrians had crossed the Rubicon, for them there would be no return to the servitude of the past.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion," just published by Hoover Press.