Serene Assir, AFP
Last updated: 10 May, 2012

Damascus blasts push Syria ever closer to war

The recent escalation of violence in Syria, including twin bombings on Thursday that killed scores, has pushed the country closer to war and could spell an end to a UN ceasefire mission, experts say.

“The country is in a civil war vortex, and all this is happening while the international community is not living up to its responsibilities,” said Khattar Abu Diab, professor of international relations at Paris Sud University.

Though the Damascus bombings were the deadliest since an anti-regime uprising began in March last year, analysts said the imminent failure of a UN-backed peace plan was already clear.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has failed to implement a six-point plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, said Abu Diab.

“The ceasefire has not been respected, people have not been allowed to protest freely and peacefully, and the political prisoners have not been freed,” said the analyst.

The putative truce technically came into effect on April 12, but hundreds of people on both sides have died since then, and the UN and rights groups have accused both the regime and rebels of violating it.

Earlier this week, UN leader Ban Ki-moon warned the government and opposition that there was only a “brief window” to avoid “a full-scale civil war.”

But with no clear alternative to the peace plan in sight, “we stand before a dead end,” Abu Diab noted

Some say the UN mission may have already failed.

“The West is supporting a mission that it doesn’t believe in,” said Peter Harling, an expert on Syria with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told AFP.

“The Annan mission is born out of the international community’s ambivalence,” he added.

At the same time, escalating violence may have regional repercussions amid outside calls to support armed groups on the ground. “Such actions contravene the spirit of the Annan plan,” he added.

As Thursday’s blasts seemed to prove, violence has already escalated to the degree that “it’s unclear what action the UN can take at this stage,” he said.

To date, only some 70 of a planned 300 observers have been deployed to oversee the truce. Syria’s neighbour and former ally Turkey has even suggested that 3,000 are needed.

Beyond the explosions, Harling said Syria is witnessing “a diversification of forms of violence.” Among the striking developments was an escalation of armed clashes in the capital Damascus, he said, and targeted assassinations.

What began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 gradually degenerated into an armed conflict, after Assad’s regime responded to protesters with a fierce military crackdown.

By cracking down on armed dissent in towns such as Homs earlier in the year, Harling added, it has brought the rebels “closer to home. That’s why Damascus is no exception any more.”

Mutual accusations by the regime and the opposition over who was responsible for Thursday’s twin bombings deepened analysts’ fears that all-out war was nigh.

“If we remember what happened in Algeria in the 1990s, we often asked who was behind the violence, but seldom had the right answers,” Abu Diab said.

That was a reference to an insurgency by Islamist militants after the authorities overturned an election won by them.

With no way of knowing for a fact who was behind the blasts, the regime tried to reinforce its argument that Al-Qaeda or foreign intelligence are behind the violence, Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told AFP.

Assad’s regime has regularly blamed “armed terrorist groups” and Gulf countries for violence in Syria, and used that argument to justify its crackdowns.

“But obviously, the Syrian revolution is not about Al-Qaeda, and it’s not about the Gulf,” said Salem.

“It’s about Syrians being fed up with their situation, like many other citizens of the Arab world, and demanding their rights,” he added.

The situation is complex, Salem added, in that part of it is “a revolution, and part of it, where there is a particular sectarian situation, it has taken on a Sunni-Alawi dynamic. Both things are happening at the same time.”

Syria is a multi-confessional country. The largest number of people are Sunni Muslims, but there is a sizeable minority of Alawites, who are an offshoot of Shiite Islam and from whose number Assad comes.

Experts agreed that the longer the violence drags on, the more the kind of extremism Assad’s regime warned of at the start of the revolt — when the uprising was still peaceful — is actually coming true.

“From the very first day, the regime responded to the protests as war,” said Salem. “It has created a war. Eventually, it will probably suffer the consequences of what it has created.”