By Michael Weiss
Six a.m., April the 12th – this Thursday – is the deadline that Kofi Annan has given for a full cessation of all violence in Syria. That would make 6:15am a fine time for him to resign as UN special envoy and do the world a favour by acknowledging that his diplomatic mission has been a failure in a career that now stands defined by them. Annan’s efforts, which he and others have termed a “last chance” to avoid all-out civil war in Syria, were already embarrassed last Thursday by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who candidly told reporters: “I think Bashar al-Assad is tricking us. He is pretending to accept Kofi Annan’s six-point plan while at the same time still using force.”
Juppe is one of the few Western statesmen to emerge from this year-long crisis with any shred of dignity. He’s right, of course, although he might have added that Assad has actually taken the opportunity to escalate the violence under the cover of an international timetable while mocking the timekeepers by insisting that “armed terrorist groups” agree to withdraw from Syrian cities before the tanks and howitzers do. That must have been point seven.
Let’s assess the carnage since the Easter holiday break. Homs, Idlib and Zabadani have withstood round-the-clock artillery shelling over the last week. The villages of Taftanaz and Killi – both in Idlib – have been destroyed with heavy artillery and helicopter gunships. Residents who fled talk of mass graves and the video evidence that has emerged is no more encouraging. This is what residential buildings in Taftanaz now look like:
On Good Friday, the Syrian Local Coordination Committees reported that the Damascus suburbs sustained some of the worst assaults, corroborated by footage showing places such as Douma still pluming with black smoke:
“The regime’s forces are raiding several neighborhoods in the city since this morning amid random shelling using tanks…and heavy shooting, which resulted in damaging and burning of several houses, columns of smoke are rising from those areas. Additionally, they are conducting campaign of raids and arrests reached dozens of activists. Snipers were also deployed, they are targeting anyone who is moving.”
Moreover, helicopter gunships can now clearly be seen firing from the air, not just in the north but also in the suburbs of Syria’s industrial city Aleppo, suburbs which have also been pounded with artillery:
This footage confirms widespread testimony from activists and rebels over the past several months that, contrary to Western government statements about the uselessness of a no-fly zone, the regime has indeed been waging an aerial assault in tandem with its land operations. Helicopter attacks have been on the rise lately, no doubt because Assad reckons that Nato and the United States are telling the truth when they say that they’ve got no plans to intervene militarily in Syria.
Those plans are due a serious rethink, as there’s now another timetable being set that doesn’t run according to Russia and China’s schedule: Turkey’s mounting refugee crisis and the threat this poses to its own national security. About 2,500 Syrian refugees streamed across border last week in one a 24-hour period, bringing the total number of Syrians hosted in southern Turkey to 24,300. A third of this figure, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, arrived in the last fortnight alone. Today came reports that Syrian forces went so far as to infiltrate Turkish territory to fire on a refugee camp, an incident that left three Syrians and two Turks (including one policeman) wounded. Ankara has the right to self-defence under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Moreover, any attack on her soil would be perceived as an attack against the entire Nato alliance to which Turkey belongs. Assad is fashioning a noose for his own neck.
Though even barring further cross-border raids, the refugee crisis is still unsustainable. The Turkish Red Crescent has said that it anticipates as many as half a million refugees, which would lead to its sectarian nightmare since most of them are Sunnis being kept in the Turkish Hatay province, a former Syrian territory that is home to a number of Turkish Alawites, or “Arab Alevis” as they’re called. Alevis are a Shi’ite branch of Muslims and they tend to be pro-Assad. As journalist Justin Vela hasreported:
On March 1, Alevi houses in Adıyaman, a province northeast of Hatay, were marked with red crosses in the same manner that they were before the 1978 Maraş Massacre, in which more than 100 people were killed by Sunni ultra-nationalists. While the Turkish government tried to play down the Adıyaman incident, Alevis warned that sectarian tensions present inside Syria could spread across the border.
If and when that happens – and it’s hard to see how the absorption of half a million refugees can do otherwise – Turkey may be forced to impose a buffer zone in Syria not out humanitarian concern but out of sheer national self-interest.
About Michael Weiss is a widely published journalist, with expertise in the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights in the Middle East. He recently wrote HJS’s Media Briefing: “Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation: A Preliminary Assessment”. Weiss has been published in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The New Criterion, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Prospect, Standpoint, Democratiya and The New Republic. He keeps a regular blog on foreign policy and the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and one on culture for The New Criterion.