The Syrian uprising that has been gaining momentum for the past sixteen months appears to be reaching a tipping point following the recent assassinations of three leading figures in President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle: defense minister Daoud Rajha, national security chief Hisham Ikhtiyar and Assad’s brother-in-law Assad Shawkat.
hile the exact circumstances surrounding the bombing are still unverified, the immediate consequences have been all too clear: government forces have launched attacks on rebel strongholds throughout Syria, with the city of Homs coming under particularly intense shelling.
The conflict has also reached the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, where fighting between Free Syrian Army troops and the regime’s soldiers has left many neighbourhoods pockmarked with bullet-holes. Checkpoints appear at night and there are widespread fuel and bread shortages.[quote align=”right” color=”#b64736″]Checkpoints appear at night and there are widespread fuel and bread shortages.[/quote]The latest violence is accompanied by news that Turkey has taken the step of halting crossings into Syria, though they will still allow people to cross from Syria into Turkey – the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey’s Red Crescent refugee camps is now approaching 50,000.
The biggest worry for the international community is the fact that Syria possesses an armoury of chemical weapons. In what many observers perceived to be a veiled threat, a spokesman for the Syrian foreign office said last week: “Any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used – and I repeat, will never be used – during the crisis in Syria, regardless of the developments…(except for in the event of) external aggression”. While there are fears that the regime may use chemical weapons in populated areas, another concern is that said weapons may end up falling into the wrong hands during future civil upheaval.
Addressing this issue, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz – Israel’s army chief – recently said to a parliamentary committee in Tel Aviv: “I believe that the weapons are currently secured and so far have not reached negative hands. This does not mean they will remain secured. There is a risk the weapons will be used against civilians, transferred to Hizbollah… We will continue tracking this.” Meanwhile, when speaking in Washington to reporters last Tuesday about recent rebel gains, Hillary Clinton said: “We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken and it will eventually result in safe havens inside that will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition.”
The development of such “safe havens” in Syria is fundamental if sympathetic nations are to provide aid and support to the Free Syrian Army. If these areas can be established, then calls for the US and NATO to enforce no-fly zones around them will soon follow. But the question of Russian cooperation still hangs in the balance. President Putin has been using his veto in the Security Council to block the UN’s demands that President Assad demilitarises the centres of Syrian cities. If a relatively bloodless transition is to be achieved, then Russian assistance is undoubtedly required or there will be no hope of finding the figures in Syria that are are able to unite the country’s fractured religious and ethnic factions.
By Frank Burbage