While the Russians are being painted as international law’s bogeymen, indifferent to choosing sides in a conflict when the only side to pick can only ever be that of peace, the Syrian opposition forces are nibbling, if not slaughtering their way, into view with their recent killings in Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle has received a series of lethal blows in the National Security Building – four of them, according to rumour mill of press reports. On Wednesday, Assad found himself one minister of defence and brother-in-law short. The latter was the infamous intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, though that itself has been disputed.
There is little doubt that the killings being inflicted by the Assad regime are reprehensible and need to cease, but that is ultimately a matter that Syria will have to contend with. When civilians die at the hands of government forces, quivers of indignation and rage are felt outside the country by anti-Assad regimes who express a partisan interest in the conflict while simulating disinterestedness. But the Syrian opposition has also relinquished its credentials as a body of peace makers. Indeed, there is much to suggest that those credentials were shed some time ago, bloodied by the desire to take up arms against a regime that dishes out good doses of it. The Free Syrian Army, and its allies, are becoming more cunning with their targeting – and at the same time ‘conventional’ with their Muslim fighters in embracing the suicide bomb. Nor should assistance from foreign sources in this regard be ruled out.
In the field of civil war, mendacity profits with insidious firestorm like speed. Techniques of killing, for one, are contradicted with regularity. Syrian state television condemned the killings as occasioned by a suicide bomb. A commander in the Free Syrian Army has suggested that the culprit lay in explosive devices exploded in the conventional way – remotely. There is even a dispute as to whether Shawkat actually died in the blast, or was in fact, poisoned two months ago (Daily Beast, Jul 18).
Again, we are left with unconvincing chalk and equally unconvincing cheese – take your pick. What is certain here is that the FSA can’t be seen to embrace methods of war that might smack, at least to Western powers, as extremist. Decorum in the face of violence will be maintained, and Assad’s regime is happy to junk it.
Debates about intervening in Syria and placing Kofi Annan’s peace plan under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter is an act of banal window dressing. As is the issue of sanctions, which has received another boost with a UK-drafted resolution. Interventions have been taking place in the 17 month old conflict since its inception, and the only issue now is for those who have picked their horse – in this case, the unpredictable, unknown creature called the Syrian opposition – to bide their time.
The hands of intelligence agencies are many and varied – Jordanians, the Central Intelligence Agency, British, French and Turkish agents. While we might take the comments of Khalaf al-Meftah, a member of the central committee of the Syrian Ba’ath party, with due suspicion, there is little doubt that elements of it are true. “The intelligence services of the enemies of Syria have always been active in Damascus in a bid to hit a blow at Syria’s popular government and today’s operations were not possible without (foreign) intelligence support for the terrorists” (FARS News Agency, 19 Jul).
International dispensation for atrocities in this vicious conflict will be provided in time – the question now is whether a Security Council resolution can be brokered that legitimises some form of intervention. The Russians will hold the floor for as long as they can, hoping to stall the collapse of the Assad regime. And the suggestion so far is that a turning point is in the air. Fighting is raging in Damascus itself, something the regime will see as ominous. One of the rebel commanders has claimed that the battle to ‘liberate’ the city has begun. “The Damascus battle,” claimed Colonel Qassim Saadeddine, “has priority for us” (Guardian, Jul 18). But the punters will continue to be busy, whether on the sidelines or through not so secret efforts, to pick which horse will storm to the finishing line. That line will be a blood-soaked one.