A Game in the Shadows: Shining Light on Syria Harder Than Ever

Let us be crystal clear about one thing right off the bat: nobody outside of Syria’s borders has any earthly idea what’s going on inside with any sort of real detail. Nobody. It’s almost as bad, if not worse, for those that are actually inside Syria right now. Imagine if you will that you’re one of the few reporters who still have access inside Syria. The government watches your every move, restricts your travel to places of consequence, and only lets you see what it wants you to see. The same goes for NGOs on the inside; even the International Committee of the Red Cross has partially given up on working with the al-Assad regime.

These restrictions outside make it all the more difficult for those on the outside to grasp the true picture of Syria’s restive state. The report to the UN Human Rights Council issued several weeks ago on the torture and killing running rampant in Syria was intended to be produced with cooperation from the Syrian government. Instead, the government prevented any access whatsoever, forcing the commissioners assigned to the project to rely on interviews with refugees and Syrian armed forces defectors. The picture their words painted made up the background of the first official report on the hardships faced by civilians in the face of crackdown.

Several commentators have taken issue with the narrative being formed out of Syria, however. STRATFOR earlier this week issued a report questioning the veracity of the opposition’s death toll claims, noting that there was no way to verify the numbers. STRATFOR went on to say “most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.”

First of all, I disagree with STRATFOR in their assumption that due to the fact that the numbers are coming solely from the opposition that they are untrustworthy. That said, it would be foolish to ignore completely the point behind the piece, that the opposition has a motive to inflate numbers and schisms within the regime. The fact I stated at the outset of this post remains true and swings both ways.

There are at present only two sources for information from the ground in Syria. The first is the state-controlled media controlled by Assad’s regime, which has claimed that over 2,000 members of the state security forces have been killed since March. The other is the opposition forces determined to remove Bashar al-Assad and his kin from power. Neither is the most credible of sources, with their desires and goals worn so plainly on their sleeves.

That situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. As part of the stipulations on lifting their economic sanctions on Syria, the League of Arab States demanded access for a team of monitors to independently verify that the state has ended its crackdown on civilians. That team finally began landing in Syria yesterday, but were off to a rocky start from the beginning. Concerns have been raised, including by me, regarding the choice for the leader of this observation team: General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. I appreciate that he was the point-man for coordination between the AU, Sudan, and UN in Darfur. But his full military history can’t be overlooked. Further, it is my belief that there is no way that the LAS monitors presence will somehow magically stop the violence or be granted, or have the political will to demand, free access to wherever they like in Syria with no forewarning. So long as journalists and NGOs are barred from observing conditions themselves, the prospect of knowing for sure what’s going on in Syria seems dim.

Things were made even more confusing today as twin suicide bombs were detonated near government buildings in Damascus, previously one of the few relatively quiet cities remaining in Syria. The government sponsored media immediately went on the air to denounce the attacks as being sponsored by al-Qaeda, likely in allegiance with protestors. Others weren’t so sure of the official government narrative:

Salman Shaikh, of the Brookings Institute in Doha, said said he was “deeply skeptical” of claims that al-Qaeda or an opposition group would have staged such an attack in Damascus.

“Syria doesn’t really have a record of this,” Shaikh said. “The security forces have not lost control of the situation to such an extent that this would seem likely.”

Shaikh also said it seemed suspicious that the media reported the attack so quickly, with pictures showing the car bombs already cleared away.

Within Syria, activists also expressed doubts about the government accounts of the explosions, saying the blasts could have been staged by authorities to discredit anti-government forces.

Omar al-Khani, of the Syrian Revolution General Commission opposition group, said residents of Kfar Sousa described little reaction from intelligence agents stationed near the targeted buildings when the explosions detonated. They did not move from their positions, these residents told Khani, but instead continued to drink tea. Snipers and guards at the building also did nothing, Khani said, citing the accounts from residents.

The timing of the blasts has also been called into question, with the LAS observers having only arrived yesterday. “The government quickly escorted the Arab League team to view the carnage, the Associated Press reported, saying the attack backed their longtime claims that the turmoil is not a popular uprising but the work of terrorists,”the Washington Post noted. It’s true, a bombing by the opposition, which killed 40 and injured over 100, many of those civilians, would be a compelling reason for the Syrian security forces to continue apace with their actions. The Free Syrian Army has denied responsibility for the bombing, the opposite action you normally see in suicide attacks, where the perpetrators can barely contain their desire to make known who has laid the government low.

If, however, it turns out that portions of the opposition are behind the bombing, then it poses a new difficulty for the movement. The use of suicide bombing to achieve their goal helps them lose the moral high ground they possessed before, having previously left the killing of civilians to the government. Further, it would strengthen Russia’s hand in attempting to prevent a strong resolution from passing through the UN Security Council.

What was once a clear-cut narrative has become increasingly muddied as the months have passed. The odds of intervention, aside from the long-shot I previously posited, have not seemed to grow, and today’s events may see them shrink. I was challenged by Aaron Ellis to provide, if I really think international intervention in Syria is the way to save lives, a strong political-military strategy that would both be achievable and logical. That already difficult task has been made much harder by today’s events.

Major news outlets are already shifting from referring the opposition from ‘protestors’ to ‘rebels’, making claims of objectivity all the more distant. There is no forthcoming Diogenes to shine a lamp on Syria, no real truth to be revealed to the world any time soon. The most we can do is attempt to make sense of the fragments of information we receive and hope to piece together a way to pump the breaks on the situation before Syria becomes an all-out civil war. Today may show that we’re already too late.


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