If the Houla massacre was Syria’s tipping point, has this week been Syria’s turning point?
The Houla massacre in May this year was, at the time, the strongest single display of Assad’s contempt for his people when 108 civilians, including 49 children, were slaughtered by his Russian supplied military machine. Occurring amidst a supposed ceasefire, the massacre was in newspeak, a ‘game changer’.
While Russia and China stood firm following Houla, it prompted an international ‘go to your room without dinner’ response from Western political powers. After more than a year of killings, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada, Spain and Australia finally expelled their Syrian diplomats. Since then, Assad’s internal and international support has vanished quicker than Tom Cruise fans following the release of Rock of Ages and both sides have given up the façade of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire.
This month Assad’s revered inner circle has continued to crumble. Following his morals, humanity and conscience Assad has now lost several high profile generals, supporters and insiders, rumours also abound that his wife, Asma, is in Russia. The ever increasing number of defectors have bought with them reports of low morale in the government forces and chemical weapons in Assad’s arsenal – mixed blessings for the Syrian opposition. The defectors, along with thousands of refugees, have fled mainly to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Israel, a country invented for refugees has publicly stated that any Syrian refugees who turn up on their doorstep will not be welcomed. While they have fought 4 wars with each other and have never established diplomatic ties, Israel, like Australia, seemingly regard their commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention as flexible. Finally, in Damascus this week, the Syrian defence minister Daoud Rahja and his deputy Assef Shawkat proved to be the wrong men for that portfolio, when they and military committee leader, Hassan Turkmani were killed in a guerrilla bomb attack during a weekly crisis meeting.
Can it be that after 16 months of brutal repression, persecution, torture and murder the Syrian people finally have cause for hope?
The rebels’ coordinated and well executed killing of Assad’s defence chiefs in Damascus confirms them as more than a rag tag militia. They are organised, connected, well armed and confident – as seen by their continued protests and celebrations in Damascus following the official announcement of the deaths. However, Assad has shown time and again he will be no pushover and will not hesitate to do what it takes to destroy the opposition.
So while Assad may now be the equivalent of a lone King continually avoiding checkmate, the combination of chemical weapons, continued Russian arms support and this wounded Syrian dog do not, in the immediate term, bode well. If he is finally cornered, which we will come to learn over the coming weeks, an all assault could be Assad’s final salute to his opponents and the world. Worse still, if the opposition are unable to capture the capital quickly many more massacres may be seen. At best, Assad’s regime will crumble like a pack of cards and he will join Gaddafi on You Tube or Mubarak at deaths door. If he is astute enough Assad will be shopping around for exile, or an Ecuadorian embassy. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the first Arab Spring leader to fall is in exile in Saudi Arabia, though with their funding and arming of the Syrian opposition it seems an unlikely destination for Assad.
The rebels’ decisive strike in Damascus coincided with the International Committee of the Red Cross announcing that the conflict is now officially a civil war, opening the doors for prosecution of war crimes and ensuring many will want to capture Assad alive.