Posts tagged ‘free syrian army’

May 9, 2012

A Revolution without Dancing

Yesterday afternoon, Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan briefed the Security Council on the progress that the government of Bashar al-Assad has made in implementing his eponymous Six Point Plan. The verdict: not much. Contrary to prior briefings, in his update to the Council, Annan sounded a much more pessimistic tone:

The Syrian army has not retreated from population centers, as called for in the accord, and continues to fire heavy artillery against civilians, Annan said. In addition, Syrian authorities continue mass arrests, and the extent of violence remains “unacceptable,” he said, according to [diplomats].

This admission comes after weeks of commentators predicting the swift collapse of the Annan Plan as a way forward in Syria. Speaking to the UN Press Corps after his briefing, and seeming to direct his response to these critics, Annan indicated that were there another viable plan to end the violence, he would gladly support it. At this time, according to Annan, no such plan exists. The Security Council is also on hold from pressing for such a plan until the Secretary-General presents his first 15-day report on the implementation of Resolution 2043 early next week.

The critiques of the Annan plan are many, and for the most part accurate, including that the number on the ground is but a few. However, one point that many seem to overlook is that the Annan Plan is an attempt to staunch the blood flow in Syria, without healing the wound. The latter is the political process that the Annan Plan hoped to foster. As a way to slow the violence, without completely halting it, the deployment of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has been effective.

UNSMIS also has played its role of cataloguing abuses for report to the Secretary-General well, especially in the face of the many obstacles it must overcome, including bombs exploding near the head of the Mission. To Major-General Mood’s credit, in response to the explosion, he stated that it is “what the Syrian people experience everyday”. But the non-state participants in the international community are becoming increasingly less patient with the pace of the UN’s measures and indicators of progress.

In a Foreign Policy article published yesterday, Salman Shaikh issued an at times scathing condemnation of the Plan, noting that it is “flawed because it was formulated on the misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith”. Shaik makes several strong points throughout his article, and unlike many, he provides the basis of an alternative that moves beyond the calls for the use of force that most provide. However, there are still flaws in his argument. The start of his call to action begins with a plea to have the world aid the opposition in uniting:

With the stakes so high, the international community cannot afford to pin its hopes on the Annan plan. Instead, it should accept the hard lessons of the past 14 months and redirect its efforts toward changing the balance of power on the ground.

Those countries with a stake in Syria’s future should do their utmost to help Syrians organize a broad-based national movement that unites people on the basis of opposition to the regime and commitment to a democratic Syria. This will require undoing the Assads’ 42-year old “divide and rule” strategy, bringing together key groups of Syrian society such as minorities and tribes. These groups now have a crucial role to play to hasten the regime’s demise and place Syria on a path to a democratic future.

I fully agree that this is a needed piece to solving Syria. The issue appears to be figuring out how to do so, not in having the will to get it done. As noted in his next paragraph, Syrians still living within the borders of the country don’t necessarily have confidence in the Syrian National Council. Unfortunately, in keeping with the lack of will to have their actions dictated by outsiders that causes that lack of confidence, there are few ways to provide the sort of safe-zones for these alliance building negotiations within Syria. Patrolling a few cities at a time is currently taxing UNSMIS; providing a safe haven for political committees to organize without fear of retaliation would require many, many more observers of a non-military makeup. Barring this ability to directly facilitate, I am uncertain how Shaikh intends the countries mentioned to aid the process.

Further, Shaik still manages to call for an increased effort to provide weaponry to the Free Syrian Army:

[Tribes in Syria] express greater support for the fragmented FSA [than the Syrian National Council], even if it has struggled to establish a clear command-and-control structure inside Syria from its Turkish base. Tribal figures have stated that they want the international community to support the FSA by providing expert assistance and help with communications and specific armaments. They worry that the uncoordinated, steady trickle of arms through private sources and the determined efforts of jihadists to enter Syria through Iraq will lead only to further chaos. They also point out that many FSA leaders and ordinary soldiers are “sons of the tribes,” and that more would join its ranks if the FSA had greater external support. Notably, there is also increasing talk of a military alliance between the FSA — in collaboration with the SNC — and the tribes and Kurds.

While calls for a controlled and managed provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army seem logical, the logistical components involved make such a venture riskier than Shaik notes. Further, the introduction of new arms into the region has already begun to affect Lebanon, whose fate has long been tied to Syria. The UN Special Envoy to the Middle East has told reporters that arms are now flowing both ways, from Syria to Lebanon and back across the border. Another UN official referred to this transfer as “a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war”. I highly doubt that in giving arms to the FSA, we can then check their redistribution to others throughout the region.

His paragraph also highlights the reasoning behind many governments’ squeamishness in increasing engagement with the FSA. The lack of a clear command-and-control structure, let alone any sort of cohesion in its components, is a problem that should be fixed before greater arms flows, not as an afterthought.  While history has made abundantly clear that armed rebellions almost always require external intervention of some sort from an established power to be successful, that self-same history proves the folly that comes from providing such material support without an established, unified opposition. Sending arms without a clear idea of how long the coalition that will be holding them will last without splintering is troubling at best.

Of course, Shaikh is nowhere near alone in his belief that the United States needs to somehow take a stronger lead in ensuring Syrian unity and training to the FSA. Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as much yesterday, again invoking the idea of safe zones. Dan Trombly has written enough on the concept of safe zones to need my further input. Daniel Serwer has also critiqued Senator Kerry for his stance on arming the FSA, noting that the sorts of small arms that would be provided would not be much of a deterrent against tanks and aircraft.

Indeed, given the alternatives, I agree with Serwer that the Annan Plan is the best of a series of bad options for Syria. In viewing the progress of the Plan and UNSMIS, Richard Gowan manages to sum up the greatest challenges and promise of the two:

The problem is that UNSMIS is not really a peacekeeping operation. Though it is meant to supervise a ceasefire, it is in fact being deployed to watch over a live conflict — and the Security Council’s members know this. Russia has maneuvered to limit the mission’s ability to report on the fighting. Western diplomats have pushed back, demanding that UNSMIS must be able to move freely and have access to Syrian citizens.

So UNSMIS has been cast in two patently incompatible roles. For Russia, the mission is meant to be an alibi for continued inaction over Syria. For the West, it is meant to be a trigger for more severe measures — although options for applying new pressure on Damascus short of the use of force are becoming harder to find.

But it may be wrong to judge UNSMIS on its ability or inability to keep a non-existent peace in Syria. Instead, the real question is whether its potential failure will have any effect on international diplomacy over the crisis. If UNSMIS sinks without a trace, it will be a setback for the West and the credibility of U.N. operations elsewhere. If it acts as a trigger for some sort of decisive intervention, it may be counted as some sort of heroic failure. But it could leave lasting scars on U.N. peacekeeping either way.

UNSMIS and the Plan that laid its groundwork are indeed modest efforts to stop a worsening crisis. In seeking a managed, orderly path towards an end game in Syria, the United Nations Secretariat and the Security Council are attempting to contain the forces at play and prevent a renewed explosion of violence that ends in strife across the region. All the while, they insist that Assad end the campaign within his borders and bow to political pressure. In short, they are attempting to bring about a revolution without dancing. Pressure is mounting, though, to strike up the band and untether the opposition, into a cacophony of a free-for-all against the government. Mr. Annan is right to frame his Six Points as the last chance to prevent civil war. The real question though is how long the international community will wait before embracing the oncoming war and seeking to shape its outcome?

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March 14, 2012

Mirror, Mirror: The UNSC as a Reflection of Syria

It’s been over a year since protesters in Syria began to march for reforms in Bashar al-Assad’s government. As the situation continues to escalate, the UN Security Council continues to work towards a solution to the problem, preferably one that doesn’t involve further bloodshed and death. Despite the pessimism that has pervaded work on Syria, the need for a political solution is still apparent, as the current phase of military struggle has yet to produce solutions for either side. The real problem comes in determining how to shift from the level of armed conflict we see at present to a political attempt at an accord between the two sides, a problem reflected in the UNSC’s members proxy insistence “I’ll stop shooting when you will”.

The wariness of the government and the increasingly armed opposition is proving to be a major hurdle to diplomacy at all levels of the United Nations and beyond. In the Security Council’s chambers, the United States and France are working in tandem with Morocco at another attempt to pass a draft resolution on the situation, an internationally binding call for peace. The draft, which hasn’t even come close to being put in blue, can be found at UN Report. While comparable to the previous efforts to pass a resolution, the current document differs in how it reflects the calls that were in the Press Statement of the Council, issued on March 1st, and its concern the need for humanitarian aid to be able to move freely within the most affected areas. Unfortunately, while it required the unanimity of the Council, the press statement falls even below a Presidential Statement in terms of enforcement, leaving the current draft the sole hope for an enforceable call to the table for the parties and push for NGOs and other aid workers to deliver much-needed supplies into Homs and other areas. Such an effort would coincide with the calls of Valerie Amos, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Assistance, who in concluding her visit to Homs, plaintively wondered where the citizens of the Baba Amr neighborhood, heavily targeted by shells, have relocated.

The main sticking point in the resolutions’ passage, however, can be found in Operative Clause 4, which is the subject of Russian and Chinese ire:

OP4    Calls upon the armed elements of the Syrian opposition to refrain from all violence immediately upon implementation of paragraph 3 of this resolution;

As paragraph 3 is the clause dealing with the implementation by Damascus of the Arab League’s Plan of Action from November, Russia and China are skeptical of the West and Gulf States’ intentions in the proposed language. Any allowance for the Free Syrian Army to continue attacks on government forces with impunity is a sure step to regime change in the eyes of Moscow and Beijing. Likewise, the Western members of the P-5 smell stalling and a desire to continue selling arms to Syria in Russia’s concerns. A high-level meeting of the Security Council on Monday highlighted these differences, while offering small morsels for a united stance by the full Council.

The mirror image that can be seen between the US, UK, France and the Arab State’s clash with Russia and China and the Syrian opposition’s distrust of Assad is hampering any chance of actual dialogue moving forward. This isn’t to say that concerns of potentially negotiating in bad faith are entirely unwarranted or validated on either side. The opposition has seen time and again promises of reform from the Assad regime coupled with increased attacks and shelling on civilian populations. Meanwhile Russia and China are hesitant to encourage political turnover that could later come back to haunt them, though I give less credence to the “Libya prevented Syria” theory than many do.

Outside of Turtle Bay, the Joint UN-Arab League envoy, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is facing similar problems in gaining the trust of the opposition and government. This morning, Annan stated that a Syrian response to his plan for mediated talks with the opposition had only prompted “more questions”, a highly diplomatic way of implying that Damascus was stalling for time. Meanwhile, the opposition finds itself splintering further still, with two top members resigning in recent days. For Annan, the task of pushing forward with mediation between not two Parties, but at least five, is a challenge in and of itself. Media reports that he ended his visit to Syria “empty-handed”, however, belie the time that seasoned observers knew would be needed in pushing for a deal. Annan is scheduled to brief the Security Council on his efforts thus far via video conference on Friday morning.

Despite disheartening setbacks, there are some signs for cautious optimism in gaining Russian acquiescence on a text in the Council. This weekend, the Russian Federation met with the League of Arab States to discuss Syria, producing Five Points of agreement on how to move forward in ending the conflict. The points, while short on detail, do offer the clearest sign yet that Russia may eventually come around to supporting the UN’s diplomatic push fully:

1. Cessation of violence from all sides.

2. An impartial monitoring mechanism.

3. No external interference.

4. Unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians.

5. Firm support for Kofi Annan’s mission to launch a political dialogue between the government and all opposition groups in accordance with the mandate contained in the terms of reference approved by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the League of Arab States

So the question remains: how do you push for two sides riddled with mistrust to lay down their arms? The answer: the same way you do in every civil conflict, through a combination of cajoling, threats, promises, and bribes by the supporters of the opposing sides. Unfortunately for the Russian and Chinese position, it’s unlikely that the Free Syrian Army will be ending their strikes against the government prior to the withdrawal of tanks and armed forces from cities and towns. Syria giving in to this request, however, places the onus on the FSA to hold up their end of the bargain, or give Syria renewed diplomatic strength to restart their assault. A Russian threat to withhold arms sales and withdraw trainers for advanced systems without compliance to a Security Council resolution, along with a promise to redouble the Syrian line of credit in the event of a violation of a ceasefire by the FSA, would move the chance of talks along swiftly.

Similarly, the Gulf States, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, can take concrete steps towards a solution by toning down their rhetoric for the time being, including the calls for military intervention and their actual continuing supply of arms to the FSA. These actions are prolonging the conflict, providing credence to Assad’s embattled rhetoric, and hindering the efforts of the UN to actually bring a peaceful solution to bear. If Qatar and the Saudis wish to invade Syria as badly as they seem to want to at times, I suggest they do so and unite world opinion finally, in a state to state conflict that the UNSC was designed to quash. In any case, cooler heads in Riyadh and Doha would be appreciated. By the same token, the Syrian National Council, currently the most organized opposition group, though barely, should revoke its decision to form a ‘Military Bureau’ to coordinate with the Free Syrian Army. Now is not the time to show enhanced unity of cause by escalating the military conflict.

I would also at this point consider amending language to the US draft from its current request for Annan to work with the Syrian government, other parties in Syria, and member-states, to upgrade Annan’s mandate from being provided by the General Assembly and the Arab League to the Security Council and Arab League. While this may not affect Annan’s mission operationally, it would add increased weight to his attempts to foster peace, including the backing of the most powerful body in the UN system. Further pressure could be placed by demanding that these Parties cooperate fully with Annan, but I have my doubts this suggestion would be heeded.

Finally, I would note that this draft resolution is a good, workable framework for negotiating with Russia and China over an actual call for a ceasefire. The language as proposed for Operative Clause 4 surprised me in how directly it supported the oppositions’ status as the aggrieved over the government, enough for me to presume that the clause was there as a negotiating start point. Instead, Secretary Clinton on Monday was unabashed in the need for the government to stop shooting first. The consternation from Russia was palpable. The United States, though correct in its principles, should yield to the politics necessary to pass this political document for a political solution. As the Russian-Arab Five Points indicate, there are points of commonality in the positions of the fifteen Council members. Rather than continue to insist that the exact wording of the resolution remain intact, the West needs to focus on the momentum that will come from finally gaining a statement from the Security Council on Syria and lay down their own rhetorical arms. Passage of a resolution at the Security Council level, in theory, could serve as a catalyst for their mirror images to do the same. Continuing to delay over the insistence that the other side blink first is a recipe for continued strife and increased carnage.

February 8, 2012

What’s next for the United Nations and Syria?

The majority of the coverage following Russia and China’s twin veto of the UN Security Council’s resolution on Syria has been devoted to parsing the motives of the two in casting down the draft. I disagree with those who say that a veto was inevitable following the outcome of resolution 1973 on Libya. I most certainly agree that NATO overstepped its bounds in its air-campaign, doubly so when it comes to the arming of the Libyan rebels. However, Russia and China knew what they were getting into when they abstained on what was, as Joshua Foust pointed out in April, “in essence, a declaration of war by the international community against Gadhafi”.

In any case, the reasons for the veto matter less than determining what to do next for this scenario. And for UN observers such as myself, that includes making a determination on whether there’s a role for the United Nations moving forward with this crisis. Despite the frozen nature of the Security Council at this junction, there are a few options on the table for the UN, some less likely than others to succeed. So what can the UN do? I have listed out below a few policy options for the US to consider and/or pursue at the United Nations moving forward.

Removal of Syria from UN bodies:

The United Nations is already working on this, as is evidenced in UNESCO. Syria was quietly nominated to and accepted by acclimation as one of two Arab representatives seated on UNESCO’s Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which has a human rights component to its work. The members of the Executive Board, including Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, the US, United Kingdom, and France, are pushing to have Syria removed from the seat. The Executive Board next meets on March 10th, and are expected to take action then. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Syria lacks the weight it has in the past at the United Nations, leaving it with few seats to be removed from. The Syrian Arab Republic is currently serving no terms on the ECOSOC, Human Rights Council, or UN Development Programme or UNICEF’s Executive Boards. The only other major human rights body of the United Nations, the Third Committee of the General Assembly, can’t suspend Syria without the GA suspending its full membership. And considering states like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea manage to stay within the UN’s good graces, it’s doubtful that Syria will be suspended anytime soon.

Prognosis: The UNESCO push is likely to succeed, further isolating Damascus, but a lack of other Syrian memberships limits further options.

Uniting for Peace?

After the veto last week, the buzz started up once again that in looking for a ‘Plan B’ on Syria, Uniting for Peace was back on the table. When asked about this option during a press conference yesterday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin stated that he hadn’t heard about such action being considered, and that if it were it would be “complicated”. He’s right on this one. The problems that I had with the idea last month still are very much the case, particularly in regards to legality. At best, a new General Assembly resolution will be able to encourage states to pass new sanctions against Syria, but these sanctions would be unenforceable in open waters.  I’ve also heard discussion about using a resolution to call for an informal arms embargo as provided in the earliest version of the Morocco draft. The problem remains there that while the states who don’t like Syria will happily block arms sales, the main arms suppliers to Assad are Russia, who won’t allow its vessels to be boarded, and Iran, who would find new and exciting ways to ship arms to Syria. Any sort of blockade that comes without UN Security Council approval will be, and should be, seen as an Act of War. That said, using the General Assembly to endorse the Arab League’s plan, rather than calling for further measures of its own, has a slightly better chance of succeeding. Again, without enforcement measures, though, it’s hard to see the international community’s opinion weighing heavily on the heart of Assad.

Prognosis: Slightly better odds than I originally predicted, provided the UNGA limits itself to endorsement of the League of Arab States’ plan.

United Nations Fact-Finding/Mediation Mission:

Rather than waiting to see if the League of Arab States’ mission resumes, the United Nations could seek to launch a fact-finding mission of its own as to the levels of violence within Syria. Such a provision could be included as part of a General Assembly resolution, however, we again run into enforcement issues. In its resolution last year to launch an investigation into Syria, the Human Rights Council demanded that Damascus cooperate in full with its commission of investigators. It most certainly did not, leading the commissioners to rely on the testimony of defectors and others outside of Syria to gather evidence for their final report. There is no reason to believe that Assad’s government would welcome a new mission into its borders readily, or grant more access to UN observers than they did the Arab League’s team.

Such a proposal would, therefore, require support from the Security Council. In the earliest days of the Security Council, rather than tasking the Secretary-General to undertake peace missions, the Council itself dove right in, utilizing member-states rather than UN diplomats. For example, in the first India-Pakistan conflict in 1948, rather than task the Secretariat to launch an investigation, the UNSC passed Resolution 39. The Resolution set up a commission composed of three member-states, soon upped to five in Resolution 47, to travel to Kashmir and report to the Council on the conditions on the ground before launching mediations. Unfortunately, the military situation in Kashmir prevented the commission from completing its mission, but a similar move could be made with regards to Syria. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether such a move would work, for several reasons.

First, the opposition has made clear its distrust of the Assad government, and continues to make the President’s resignation a precondition for any negotiations with the government. The Assad regime, and Russia to a lesser extent, finds this unpalatable. Further, it’s unlikely that Russia would support a diplomatic initiative directly undertaken by the Security Council for several reasons. The insertion of a UN team into Syria amid rising violence risks the injury of death of one of the observers, a tragedy in itself, but could lead for a push to provide protection for these observers. The slippery-slope on this would be clear for Moscow. Further, Russia is enjoying its sole leverage over Syria, as evidenced in Foreign Minister Lavrov’s trip to Damascus yesterday to present a plan so secret that no details could be revealed.

Prognosis: The General Assembly may choose to send a team, but lacking authority, the UNSC would be forced to take up, and fail, the issue.

Secretary-General Envoy for Syria:

Rather than pushing for an observation mission, the Secretariat could unilaterally insert itself into the Syrian crisis. The Secretary-General under the Charter has rather wide leeway when it comes to diplomatic initiatives, as greats such as Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan have realized. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon could himself launch the sort of shuttle diplomacy that might produce an end to the Syrian crisis. In utilizing the Good Offices of the Secretary-General, Mr. Ban could choose to appoint and send an Envoy for Syria to Damascus, or could undertake the initial trip himself. The idea, while not a guarantee to succeed, has some potential. The United Nations as a body, opposed to a collection of Western plotters, might command Assad’s respect at least slightly more, insofar as accepting an envoy for discussions. Further, the opposition knows quite clearly where the Sec-Gen stands on violence in Syria in light of his condemnation of the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Further, as a second-termer, Mr. Ban has less to fear from the Permanent Five than he did in his first; there’s no reelection to win.

Prognosis: While not guaranteed to end the violence, has potential to help facilitate a political end to the crisis.

Humanitarian Resolution in the UN Security Council:

In light of the ongoing humanitarian disaster that is Syria, one of the most pressing calls has been to set up “safe zones” and “humanitarian corridors” in Syria. While these are non-starters with Russia and China, there is always the option of passing through a resolution that, rather than focusing on the political aspects of the crisis, focuses in on the need to protect refugees and provide aid to those in Syria who need it. Or at least that’s what it would any logical person would assume was a possibility. In actuality, it would be extremely difficult to pass, and then enforce, such a resolution, as we can see from the Somalia situation. In that instance, we saw what began as a mission solely to deliver aid to those suffering famine in the form of Operation: Restore Hope, and endorsed by the UN in Resolution 794. The endeavor quickly experienced mission creep, leading the Council to pass more and more resolutions on the issue before the whole effort ultimately collapsed. Any attempt to only handle one aspect of Syria will be done at risk of inflaming the ignored portions of the crisis.

Prognosis: Unlikely; there is no such thing as an apolitical resolution.

Wait:

The least appealing of options is to simply wait. The situation as it currently stands is sure to escalate, whether the international community intervenes or not. The Syrian government isn’t likely to have a sudden change of heart on the killing of its civilians, nor is the opposition like to turn the other cheek for much longer. The Free Syrian Army’s recruitment efforts have surely raised following the failure of the Morocco draft in the Security Council, and many are clamoring that now is the time for states who support democracy or the protestors or both to send arms to support the FSA. I’m rather sure that Turkey’s implicit hosting of the FSA won’t be tolerated for much longer by Assad, nor will the FSA wait for the Syrian National Council to get its act together before escalating attacks. An increase in arms, lacking accountability measures, will further wreak havoc on the region, particularly should the FSA be unable to control copycat organizations.

At present, the refugee situation, while certainly bad, is not a tidal wave; there are currently over 6,000 refugees registered in Lebanon and 7,500 in Turkey. An increase in attacks and the onset of civil war will certainly change that. As we saw in the midst of the Kosovo situation in the late 1990s, neighboring states’ destabilization from refugee inflow and harboring of resistance fighters, in that case Albania and Croatia, in this Turkey and Lebanon, will prove the impetus for more concerted action on Syria. This matter won’t be fully disappearing from the agenda of the UN Security Council anytime soon.

Prognosis: The most likely of options. We’ll be hearing about Syria in the UNSC more in coming months.

In summation, at least some options exist for next steps for the United Nations on Syria’s crisis. Many of them have components that are necessary to their success that I don’t believe exist at present. But the options still exist, and I wouldn’t fault Member States or the Secretariat for pushing forward with any of these. It’s easy to stand back, as I do, and critique; much harder to actually press for a deal. I still believe that no matter the course of action that is taken, the last of the options is what will wind up coming to fruition. Turkish and American calls for a Coalition of states, including non-permanent Security Council members, the Arab League’s members, and others, to deal with Syria outside the auspices of the United Nations are gaining traction. In the event the crisis worsens, however, the UN should be ready to step back in.

December 23, 2011

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.