Within the past week, the suppression of anti-government protesters and attacks by government forces on a rag tag bunch of army defectors and rebels has morphed into something that more constitutes a civil war. More effective and organized strikes by rebel forces in hot spots in northwestern Syria have now turned into attacks within the suburbs of the capital city of Damascus. The center of power for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has remained mostly quiet for the bulk of this conflict, though that was violently upended Wednesday as a reported suicide bombing attack struck at the heart of the country’s government:
Defense Minister General Rajha and his deputy, Assef Shawkat, the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad, were reportedly killed on Wednesday in the deadliest assault on government officials since the violence began 16 months ago.Also reported dead were Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar and General Hassan Turkmani, a former defence minister and currently Syria’s deputy vice president, who later died of his injuries.
There were additional injuries among other government officials who were at a gathering in Damascus’s National Security building. Two groups - Liwa al-Islam (The Brigade of Islam) and the Free Syrian Army – claimed responsibility for the attacks, though it is rather difficult to validate anyone’s claims on the ground. What can be verified is that the response from Mr. Assad’s side continues to be fierce:
The fact that there are at least two groups who want to claim responsibility for the attack on the government Wednesday somewhat underscores the fragile state of the opposition itself. Unlike the Libyan Civil War, which had definable army vs. rebel positions that could be mapped, the bulk of the Syrian uprising has been much less organized and fragmented. The Free Syrian Army is the closest to a unified opposition front that exists in the country, though with a lack of organized civilian leadership or stated goals other than removing Mr. Assad. Estimates on the strength of the FSA and its ability to do anything on an organized scale very widely – from 10 to 40,000 troops and from nothing more than hit-and-run attacks to the ability to actually hold ground.
Attempts at bringing a ceasefire to the conflict now feel like a distant memory, as a fragile attempted truce by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan dissolved into renewed fighting at the start of June. Since then death tolls have jumped by hundreds and regional stability was threatened with Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet on the 22nd of June. In response, Turkey has thrown its support behind the Syrian opposition – allowing the establishment of refugee camps inside its borders though no overt military support at this time.
Defections from the regime have increased as well – with a Brigadier General from the army and the Syrian ambassador to Iraq becoming the most high profile members of military and civil society to cast their lot with the rebels.
International response has remained extremely muddled. Western nations are eager to back increased sanctions on the country with the tacit desire to perhaps impose a no-fly zone or take action more along the lines of what was done at the turning point of the Libyan Civil War. Russia and China continue to have none of it, threatening to veto any United Nations Security Council resolutions that can potentially be manipulated into a mandate to use force against Mr. Assad’s regime.