Damascus Bombings Bring Civil War Closer
By Rick Moran
Two suicide car bombs detonated outside of Syrian intelligence headquarters on Wednesday, killing 55 civilians and security personnel and wounding nearly 400. The twin blasts bore the signature of Islamic terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and demonstrated a new determination by the terrorists to intervene directly in what is now a simmering civil war in Syria. The US and UN both condemned the attacks, but suggested no new ideas on how to quell the slaughter, now in its 14 month, except to maintain the hope that the peace plan brokered by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan might somehow calm the situation.
At this point, even Annan probably believes it to be a forlorn hope. He told the UN on Tuesday that President Assad is not abiding by any of the terms of the agreement and that this failure is leading to a full blown civil war that may spill over Syria's borders, affecting Iraq, Lebanon, and other Middle East states. But Annan stubbornly maintains that the peace plan is the only hope to prevent such a catastrophe and that the UN monitors charged with enforcing the agreement should be allowed to continue their mission.
Blaming Western-backed terrorists for the Damascus attacks, President Assad pressed forward with his brutal crackdown. Artillery fire directed at civilians in Homs killed at least 10 people on Wednesday, as Assad continues to receive massive military support from Russia, while Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah continue to supply shock troops for Assad's increasingly unreliable army.
No claim of responsibility for the bombing has been made, but Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal and other analysts suspect an al-Qaeda-linked militant group called the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant. The terrorist group has claimed responsibility for some recent attacks in Damascus, and Syria's second largest city Aleppo. The US suspects Al-Qaeda in Iraq or one of its violent offshoots, which have recently moved into Syria to fight against the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad. Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One, "We do not believe (this) kind of attack that you saw in Damascus is representative of the opposition. There are clearly extremist elements in Syria, as we have said all along, who are trying to take advantage of the chaos in that country, chaos brought about by Assad's brutal assault on his own people."
Other analysts aren't so sure that the opposition is completely blameless. Some Islamist elements of the Syrian opposition may be using the terrorists to completely militarize the conflict. The BBC points out that using terrorists "may be an especially attractive strategy at a moment when parts of the opposition are realising that no cavalry – whether Nato or the Arab League – is coming to rescue them." That may be true, but the civilian Syrian National Council still holds out hope for Western military aid and it is unlikely they would risk alienating their benefactors by cooperating with terrorists.
But the opposition is pointing the finger at the Assad regime as the culprit. Brig. Gen. Moustafa el-Sheikh, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army's military council, said that "no other parties in Syria … are technically capable of making such a huge explosion, except for the regime itself." If the blame can be laid at the feet of AQI, this makes more sense. For years, the Assad regime established networks and conduits to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, assisting them in their efforts to sow sectarian strife that eventually led to a bloody civil war. Experts fear that blasts like this will only exacerbate sectarian divisions in Syria between the majority Sunni Muslims and the ruling Alawite minority.
Regardless of who is responsible, the blasts put a coda on Kofi Annan's peace plan, which is now all but dead. The former secretary general made that clear when he briefed the Security Council on Tuesday, saying that President Assad has failed to implement any part of the 6-point plan he negotiated last month. Assad's forces, along with his heavy weapons, were supposed to pull back from cities and towns; they have not done so. Assad has also failed to release political prisoners as he promised, allow foreign reporters into the country, or start a dialogue with the opposition. Annan has received an invitation from the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to talk with President Assad, but what good would it do? It is clear at this point that Assad has no intention whatsoever of living up to his end of the bargain and would seek to use any visit by Annan as a propaganda ploy. Annan has not decided whether to go to Damascus or not.
Only 39 of the 300 UN monitors have so far deployed to Syria and it appears that at the rate they are being allowed into the country, the 90-day mandate for the force will have run out before all of them arrive. In fact, the process of inserting the monitors may slow down even more as a result of the terrorist attacks in Damascus on Wednesday as well as another car bomb that hit a UN convoy on Tuesday, missing UN personnel but wounded 8 Syrian soldiers accompanying the monitors.
Pathetically, Western governments cling to the illusion that the peace plan can work - and even if they have no illusions, they are unwilling to face the question of what happens next. If the peace plan has failed - and nearly everyone agrees that it has - what can be done to stop the massacre of civilians while affecting regime change?
President Obama is running away from the Syrian crisis, not wanting the United States to get drawn into a bloody, messy conflict, especially in an election year. While this may be a sound policy, not having an alternative while showing absolutely no leadership in the crisis troubles many nations in the world. Our importunings to Russia, which supplies Syria with 95% of its arms and has continued a steady flow of weapons to Syria all during the uprising, have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow. Vladmir Putin, recently strengthened by being elected president, sees Syria as the linchpin to their strategy in the Middle East.
Moscow not only supplies almost all of Syria's arms, but Russian firms are heavily engaged in the oil and gas industry in Syria, as well as infrastructure projects. Trade with Assad amounted to nearly $20 billion in 2009. As the Jerusalem Post explains:
The Russians also have an interest in maintaining a troublesome client in the Levant in order to act as a potential tool of disruption and political pressure against the West in its own backyard. Moscow sees itself as threatened by NATO expansion eastwards.
It is useful to have a well-placed client whose capacity for trouble-making might act as a deterrent to Western schemes.
Would anything change Russia's mind about increasing international pressure on Assad's regime? The Russians and Chinese have been running interference for Assad at the UN for more than a year, beating back resolutions that called for stronger sanctions, and scotching talk of any kind of intervention. But the bloody nature of Assad's crackdown has made Moscow's position more and more untenable. This is why Russia, more than any other nation, is urging the UN to give the Annan plan more time. Outright failure of the agreement might force Russia to reluctantly back stronger sanctions that would drastically affect a Syrian economy already on life support. If food vanishes from the shelves, even some hardcore regime supporters might turn against Assad. The dictator knows this, which is why he has slacked off slightly in the killings, biding his time until he believes the UN will get tired of his games and leave him in peace - free to bring the rebellion to a bloody end.
That's Assad's view - he has left himself with little choice. Successfully weather the rebellion or meet his end. No sanctions, no UN monitors, no Free Syrian army or civilian opponents will deter him from trying to maintain his position. The only thing that would dislodge him would be a massive intervention by the rest of the world. And as we've seen from NATO, the Arab League, and the United Nations itself, this is not going to happen.
One former State Department official, Susan Slaughter, believes that eventually, the US will be forced to take a hand to resolve the situation:
"I understand what we're afraid of, but at some point, the status quo is going to become worse than any of our fears. And at that point, we're going to have to act," Slaughter says. "The problem is no one can see exactly what that point is."
A Syrian civil war that spills over into Lebanon - a nation experiencing its own sectarian tensions and whose population is divided between pro- and anti-Syrian factions - would reignite fears of a regional conflict based on religious divisions. That is one scenario where the US may act.
And the car bombings in Damascus may have brought that day closer.