Using a pair of car bombs that violated the Eid al-Adha “truce” as a justification, the al-Assad regime had begun what can only be described as a scorched earth policy of bombing of Sunni Muslim areas of Syria. The air force has targeted parts of Aleppo, Homs and Deir al-Zor which are in rebel hands, but also bombed Sunni neighborhoods around Damascus. The regime has avoided large scale bombing around Damascus to avoid alienating their middle-class base.
Opposition activist Moaz al-Shami, speaking over Skype, told Western activists, “More than 100 buildings have been destroyed, some leveled to the ground. Whole neighborhoods are deserted. Even electricity poles have bene hit and they are lying among pools of water from burst pipes. There is no food, water, electricity or telephones.” Among the Damascus neighborhoods hit were Harasta, Hajar al-Aswad and Jaramana where one bomb killed 10 people including women and children. The state media claims that “armed terrorist groups” broke the holiday truce in all four cities.
The influx of foreign Islamists has been a problem for the rebels. They appreciate the weapons being brought in, but do not want their revolution highjacked as they have seen happen in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt where there has been a very sudden increase in extreme religious groups like the Salafists.
The battle for Syria has become more sectarian. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslim, up to 74% of the population, 16.65 million people. The Shia, of which the ruling Alawite tribe are a part, are 13%, 2.93 million people. Ten percent, 2.25 million are various Christians and 3%, 675, 000 are Druze, an offshoot of Islam. Complicating the math are the ethnic divisions. While 90% of the population is Syrian or Palestinian Arab, 9% are Kurds. The two million Kurds, along with the 2.9 million Christians and Druze had been trying to sit out the revolution and hoping that whatever Syria evolved into would be a country where minority rights were protected. But the Kurds are a special case in many Middle Eastern countries.
Once upon a time, the Kurds were an empire. They are ethnically unique. When Great Britain and France divvied up the Ottoman Empire, they ignored requests for a separate nation for the Kurds. Dividing strong ethnic groups was part of the idea in the way the Middle East was divided into countries that had never existed before. Very briefly in 1920, it seemed that the Kurds would have a new Kurdistan, but instead, the Kurds had their traditional territory bisected by the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia. The greatest period of Kurdish independence in modern times came as a consequence of Bill Clinton’s no-fly policy in Iraq. The Kurds in northern Iraq had formed their own secular government because of the no-fly protection from Saddam Hussein’s government and have not been pleased with the insistence of the Bush administration that they rejoin greater Iraq. In Turkey, they formed an insurgency/terrorist group and have been fighting for independence from Turkey for decades.
The Syrian rebels apparently decided they didn’t like fence-sitters and there have been increasing reports of armed and unarmed conflicts between the rebels and the Kurds. The rebels have taken the attitude that “if you’re not with us, you’re with the regime,” and are treating the Kurds accordingly. The Kurds don’t see any advantage for them with either the rebels or the regime, so they are trying to stay out of it.
And the impasse in the United Nations goes on. Russia and China are blocking any action by the Security Council. China does not want to take sides, and has urged the al-Assad regime to negotiate with the rebels. Russia supports the regime, along with Iran. They have vetoed simple resolutions condemning the regime’s violence and there is no hope they would support the no-fly zone needed to protect civilian lives.
The estimate is that this weekend’s “four day truce” for Eid al-Adha resulted in 500 mostly civilian deaths. Tracking the dead is as hard as tracking the refugees, both internal and external. The refugees alone present a strain for the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. Turkey has moved military units to the border to prevent any further incursions by Syrian troops and Jordan requested a small American force for border protection. In Lebanon, the Syrian conflict has damaged the government, with a car bomb in Beirut on October 19, killing the head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, Wissam al-Hassan and seven others. Al-Hassan had ties to the Syrian opposition and the Lebanese have blamed the al-Assad regime for his death.
As much as the West wants to prevent the conflict in Syria from spilling over into the rest of the region, it is beginning to look impossible without some kind of intervention. We do not want American troops on the ground, or any other foreign forces on the ground either. As we learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fastest way to unite the warring factions is for a foreign army to arrive. But the regime has ignored all attempts by other Middle Eastern nations to help sort the rebellion out, and is treating all calls for the Assads to step down as attempts by Islamists to take over the country and destroy “Pan-Arabism” an ideology dating back to Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser and Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez.
A decade ago, it was believed that Bashar al-Assad would be a reformer, would open the government of Syria to all people, would put equality of opportunity above tribal loyalty. At the beginning of this rebellion, 19 months ago, that is what he promised. Some Syrian analysts have speculated that he has fallen under the complete influence of his mother, who sees in him an extension of her late husband and will feed him whatever lies are necessary to retain Alawite control over the Syrian people. It makes about as much sense as any other explanation for why al-Assad is willing to reduce his nation to rubble and killing tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of his own people to stay in power, and destablize the region in the process.