BEIRUT — The gunmen walked into an apartment building before dawn this month in the quiet Damascus suburb of Jaramana, went to the fifth floor, and knocked on the door. When the police commander opened up, the men shot him dead and left.
President Bashar Assad’s opponents in Syria appear to be resorting increasingly to assassinations of loyalist military officers in an escalation of their campaign to bring down the regime. At least 10 senior officers, including several generals, have been gunned down in the past three months, many of them as they left their homes in the morning to head to their posts.
The latest occurred Tuesday, when attackers shot and killed a retired lieutenant colonel and his brother, a chief warrant officer, at a home supplies store in another suburb of the capital, according to the state news agency.
Elsewhere in Damascus, an intelligence officer was killed, opposition activists said.
Such targeted slayings are rising as an intensified crackdown by regime forces in recent months has dealt heavy setbacks to Syria’s rebels. For the moment, Assad’s troops have shattered the rebels’ strategy of trying to seize ground in several cities and provinces.
Their pace appears to have accelerated even more sharply since a cease-fire plan brokered by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan went into effect April 12 - and just as quickly began to unravel.
The peace plan was meant to halt 13 months of violence by government forces to put down an uprising against Assad in which the UN says more than 9,000 people have died.
A spokesman for Annan said in Geneva that satellite imagery and other credible reports show Syria has failed to withdraw all its heavy weapons from populated areas as required by the cease-fire deal.
It is unclear whether the recent slayings are being carried out by rogue elements in the opposition seeking revenge or whether they represent a coordinated strategy by rebels to destabilize the regime. A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, the Turkish-based umbrella group for armed opposition groups in Syria, denied it was behind the string of attacks, although he said the victims were legitimate targets.
There is also a sectarian tone to the killings. Almost all the slain officers come from the religious minorities that have been the most diehard supporters of Assad in the face of the Sunni Muslim-led uprising against his rule. Such minorities - particularly Alawites, followers of a Shi’ite offshoot sect - make up the backbone of the military’s officer ranks.
Mohamad Bazzi, a Syria expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the killings are “likely a tactic by the Syrian rebels who are fighting from a much weaker position.
“In many ways, it’s a classic guerrilla tactic — to strike at weak points in the regime’s military and security apparatus,’’ he said.
Faiz Amru, a rebel general in the Free Syrian Army, insisted those who were killed were involved in the crackdown on the opposition in the past year.
Aside from assaults battering pro-opposition residential areas with tank fire and heavy machine guns, regime forces have also directly targeted dissidents, with activists taken from their homes and later found dead.
“Under any law, the killer should be killed,’’ Amru said. “These officers have direct orders to kill people and destroy homes.’’
Amru said the Free Syrian Army is not directly involved and that the assassins were individuals seeking revenge for abuses by the regime.
One activist said those killed appeared not to be the most prominent commanders of the assaults. “It is very difficult to assassinate intelligence officers who are taking a major part in the crackdown because they move amid tight security,’’ he said. “Such officers don’t drive or walk alone in the streets.’’
Another activist, based in the city of Homs, said he believed the main motive was revenge against the loyalist religious minorities.