It is no longer a question of whether the U.S. and its Arab allies should intervene to end the bloodshed in Syria. They have already intervened, but without introducing a large number of soldiers. They sent in a small number of experts in guerrilla warfare who are guiding the rebel forces and are also offering sophisticated weapons and intelligence gleaned through satellites and other means.
That is how we should read the developments that have gone into a high-speed spin following the killing of several key figures in the regime of President Bashar Assad last week.
Did the death of defense minister Daoud Rajiha, interior minister Mohammad Ibrahim Shaar, former defense minister Hassan Turkmani, who headed the regime’s crisis management cell, and Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar signal a turning point in the rebellion? And what is the political significance of the death of Gen. Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, deputy chief-of-staff and the strong man in the country since Rifaat Al Assad’s exile in the early 1990s?
It is too soon to tell, since the regime remains very much in position and is continuing to wage war on its people. But the regime is finding it tough. Rebel fighters have reportedly taken control of all border crossings with Iraq and Turkey as the regime’s loyalists are withdrawing from the Golan and other periphery areas in order to focus on defending Damascus.
The rebellion began in Deraa months ago as peaceful protests, but the overreaction of the regime, which used massive military force against schoolchildren and the protesters, turned the revolt into an armed confrontation. And today, the armed conflict has reached the main seat of power in the capital.
Clearly, Wednesday’s bombings in Damascus that killed the top layer of the security forces was carefully planned and could not have been carried out without “inside” help. And there are clear signs that the rebel forces are receiving increased support from external supporters.
Damascus media described the bombing as a suicide attack, but the Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed that two 20-kilogramme explosive devices that were planted in a conference room where the top echelon were meeting went off, killing Rajiha, Turkmani, Shaar and Shawkat.
Unconfirmed reports said Assad himself was injured in an attack a day earlier. Some reports said his family had fled to his native village of Kardaha in the Alawite mountains. However, there has been no scaling down of the military’s brutal crackdown against the rebellion.
The president appeared on television on Thursday and swore in a new defense minister. That should lay to rest speculation that he was seriously wounded.
We are witnessing a sudden surge in the revolt. The rebel forces appear to have gained more effectiveness and sophistication, most likely with help from the U.S. and its Arab allies, as the Lebanese media reported.
The external intervention came after the U.N. Security Council failed to live up to its responsibility to act according to resolution 2043, or put an end to the bloodshed, mainly because of Russian and Chinese opposition that left the West with two choices: intervene through direct and indirect means or let the regime murder its way in an attempt to ensure its survival.
The West opted for indirect intervention that was again punctuated by the Russian and Chinese veto on Thursday of another UN resolution to pressure the regime to stop its crackdown. It was for the third time in nine months that the two powers prevented the UN from taking effective action.
Given the Russian and Chinese stand, a clandestine Western and allied intervention without U.N. authorization was seen as the best way to save the people from the genocide perpetrators. That is what is happening now, and U.S. and allied forces in the region have been reportedly placed in a high state of alert.
We would definitely be hearing later how the U.S. and Arab allies went about strengthening the rebel forces even in the face of divisions within the opposition and fears that weapons supplied to the regime’s foes could end up in anti-West militant hands, such as al-Qaeda.
It is too early for the opposition to start celebrating because key questions remain answered: how the regime’s security apparatus and intelligence services hold up under increased pressure, and what will be their reaction to clear signs of external intervention led by the world’s sole superpower?
Assad himself repeatedly declared that he would destabilize the entire Middle East regime if his regime is jeopardized. An Assad against the wall could be expected to use everything to fight off his end, and his possession of chemical weapons makes the situation deadlier.
On July 12, Syrian forces staged a large-scale missile exercise during which Scud D, capable of carrying chemical gas warheads, were tested, according to reports. On the following day, military sources reported that Assad wanted to move chemical weapons out of warehouses nearby Homs, and distribute them to missile and artillery units, but he received an ultimatum through intelligence channels that air strikes will instantly eliminate him and his chemicals before his first move.
There will definitely be a surge in violence because Assad will never give up and like Muammar Qaddafi, is ready to fight to the last. He can be expected to unleash everything he has in his power against his challengers, but he would only be prolonging his end for few weeks, given that the U.S. and Arab allies will continue to support the people, as they have done so far.
Arab capitals should not stay neutral towards the massacres in Syria just as the Europeans regret now being the silent witnesses to Hitler’s holocaust years ago.
(This article was first published in the Jordan Times on July 22.)