A blood-red smog over Syria

15 Feb

By Victor Kotsev

The fog of war over Syria – in reality, more of a man-made smog – is fed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its foreign-backed opponents alike. Ambiguity cloaks both gut-wrenching scenes of human catastrophe and nauseating global indifference demonstrated by the all but open maneuverings of various international and regional players to get in on the feast.

While it is practically impossible to verify specific reports coming out of the country whose borders have been largely sealed off to journalists, it is hard to ignore the increasing evidence pointing to heinous crimes being perpetrated by the regime. These atrocities deserve unequivocal and harsh condemnation.

So do, however, the crimes of the various opposition groups and their foreign “volunteers” (the Libyan cohort has earned a special mention) and backers. Whether or not government claims that some 2,000 soldiers have been killed by “terrorists” since the start of the unrest almost a year ago are accurate, the chaos in the country keeps growing, and the rebels share the guilt.

It is possible even that they, or some among them, are actively seeking to provoke the government to commit greater atrocities in order to bring about an international intervention. Their various units and militias have been feeling the heat of battle, outgunned and outnumbered by the regular Syrian army. The Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council a week ago, which sunk a resolution calling on Assad to step down, added pressure on them.

Much of the opposition’s strategy is apparently predicated on the calculation that a foreign intervention would mute the regime’s heavy weapons and take out its command and control structures (the Libyan example immediately comes to mind). On February 4, following the vote at the Security Council, the rebels were forced to confront the reality that such an intervention was more distant than they had hoped; they also faced a renewed and unrelenting army offensive. Signs that some of them may be switching to desperate tactics quickly emerged.

On Friday, for example, two bombs at “security facilities” in the key northern city of Aleppo claimed the lives of at least 28 people and wounded “hundreds more”. The American think-tank Stratfor estimates that “Despite its denial, the FSA [Free Syrian Army] or one of its offshoots most likely conducted the strikes and has denied responsibility in order to avoid being tainted by accusations of terrorism that could alienate potential foreign backers”.

The report argues, “The FSA’s motivation in launching such attacks is not only to inflict damage on government installations and personnel in retaliation for the security forces’ attacks on the opposition movement, but also to elicit a harsher crackdown from the Syrian regime. A brutal crackdown would likely attract even greater international attention and cause a humanitarian crisis, which could prompt foreign military intervention – an FSA goal since its inception.” [1]

In the past, such deplorable tactics have been used by guerrilla groups the world over. Rebel claims that the regime is using chemical weapons against civilians [2] likely serve a similar purpose.

Moreover, there is another reason why the rebels might have carried out the bombing – to wreak havoc, and instill resentment, in one of the bastions of government support. The city of Aleppo is dominated by wealthier merchant classes that are primarily interested in stability and have thus far been fairly supportive of the regime. The rebels may be trying to shake their confidence in Assad by using terror. If successful, they could turn the tables on the regime.

Whether such tactics would work or not, is another question. As Israeli journalist Zvi Bar’el points out, “It looks as if Damascus has not yet woken up from its slumber, and in Aleppo life is slowly returning to normal.” [3]

The capital Damascus has also been targeted in the past – on Saturday, a day after the bombings in Aleppo, a Syrian army general was assassinated there.

Yet, whatever we think of the behavior of the rebels, lately the regime has hardly needed much provoking. The thought that it may use chemical weapons against its own people (perhaps in emulation of what a late Ba’athist comrade-turned-enemy, Saddam Hussein, did in neighboring Iraq) is no longer unthinkable. Judging by his reported actions, Assad may be on the verge of desperation himself.

The city of Homs, situated between Damascus and Aleppo, close to the Lebanese border, has become the symbol of this stage of the uprising. Dozens of casualties are reported there each day, with hundreds of inhabitants of several Sunni Muslim neighborhoods allegedly killed by the army over the past 10 days. Dozens more are reported killed elsewhere in the country daily.

Whether these activist-reported statistics are accurate or not, stories and footage coming from multiple sources on the ground are deeply disturbing. [4] It is inhumane to ignore the very real possibility that the regime is carrying out, or is preparing to carry out, a large-scale massacre.

The most appropriate historical paradigm for that would be what Assad’s father did in the city of Hama in 1982, where he massacred mercilessly the participants in another Sunni rebellion alongside thousands of civilians. According to estimates, between 10,000 and 40,000 people died then.

In an insightful recent interview, Syria expert Joshua Landis emphasizes that a massacre on the scale of Hama would be an extreme and desperate step, but that it could be coming:

Homs really sits at the fault line of sectarian, economic, geographic fault line of this revolution. Most importantly, perhaps, because this was traditionally a Sunni city with a small Christian minority in it that had a big Alawite influx over the last fifty years. And what we are seeing is fighting between two sides of the city: the Sunni side and the Alawite side.

The country has not split up – yet – along these purely sectarian lines as we saw happen in Iraq, or in Lebanon before that, but it’s headed in that direction and that’s the very scary sort of future scenario. For that reason, the government has really not come down on Homs hard yet. It’s beginning to, and that’s what we are seeing in this big pick up in violence.

[I] f you killed 40,000 people … it would bring down a torrent of international approbation, but also, probably it would light up other areas, and it would cause a real sectarian war and the Sunnis – even the upper-class Sunnis, government Sunnis – will begin to defect in big numbers, and this regime would come crumbling down. [5]

United Nations officials have characterized the conflict in Syria as a civil war. It is worth noting that the violence spilled into Lebanon days ago, with clashes between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in the city of Tripoli. [6] This is yet another documented example that could help us to understand what is happening in Homs.

To Assad, nevertheless, the Libyan cities Benghazi and Misurata may loom much larger, and scarier. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only are the Syrian rebels receiving vast amounts of military equipment and volunteers from Libya (while Gulf countries allegedly bankroll the whole thing), but also that they may be trying to implement a very similar strategy of capturing territory and enlisting foreign air cover to help defend it.

An incredibly colorful and insightful account of a rebel meeting by Time Magazine’s Rania Abouzeid demonstrates how these kinds of calculations are an integral part of rebel discussions, even at the fairly low field levels. Moreover, it is hard not to notice the similarities between Syria’s rag-tag armed opposition and Libya’s one-time rebels. (On a wholly different note, it is also important to pay attention to cracks between the rest of the opposition and the Islamic Brotherhood in Syria.) [7]

Unfortunately, neither the historical paradigm of 1982 nor the Libyan scenario is a very optimistic model for Syria. These are desperate, extreme outcomes. Yet the truly tragic part of the story is that were all this happening in a vacuum, if both the government and the opposition were getting desperate, they would also become more amenable to negotiations.

Right now, the rebels don’t seem to be able to stand up to the government forces in open battle, while with every day that passes the chaos grows and Assad’s hope that he will eventually be able to pacify the country recedes. However, given the speed and force with which foreign interests have descended onto Syria to fill the resulting vacuum, it seems practically inconceivable that the conflict will end soon (or peacefully).

Not only are the big-weights Russia, China and the US facing each other, but so are all the regional players (Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the helm of the Arab League, Iran, Turkey and Hezbollah deserve a special mention). Even on the lowest levels, a war economy based on smuggling and black-market profiteering networks stretching thousands of miles has quickly taken root.

The balance is such that barring major developments on the ground, an intervention is not imminent. After all, the Syrian regime has bought billions of dollars worth of anti-aircraft weapons in the past couple of years, and has stockpiled thousands of missiles, some tipped with chemical weapons.

Neither, however, do its enemies appear ready to back off. In 10 days, on February 24, a “Friends of Syria” group is scheduled to meet in Tunisia.

It’s hard not to note the irony of the name. “With friends like these …” Sadly, we can expect more bloodshed.

1. Syrian Rebels Likely Behind Aleppo Bombings, Stratfor, February 10, 2012.
2. Syrian defector: Assad using chemical weapons, Ynet, February 13, 2012.
3. Syria rebels waiting on Damascus and Aleppo to join fight against Assad, Ha’aretz, February 11, 2012.
4. For a particularly riveting account, see “While You Were Sleeping, Again,”, Jadaliyya, February 10, 2012.
5. Syria Crisis: Why Homs is the Center of Revolt, The World, February 8, 2012.
6. Two killed in north Lebanon in clashes over Syria, Reuters, February 11, 2012.
7. Syrian Rebels Plot Their Next Moves: A TIME Exclusive , Time, February 11, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


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