On the eve of an increasingly doomed ceasefire plan, Syrian forces fired across the border into a Turkish refugee camp, killing two Syrian refugees and injuring 23 others.
Thousands of Syrians have fled to Lebanon and Turkey to escape the violence in their homeland. Syrian troops also opened fire across the Lebanon border, killing Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban. Shaaban is the ninth journalist killed while covering the Syrian conflict.
Today is the deadline for Syria abiding by the Kofi Annan plan, which demanded a withdrawal of troops from all civilian residential areas. But a peaceful resolution to the Annan plan now seems unlikely, with more than 125 people killed by Syrian troops in the past two days.
Where to now for Syria? Writer and academic Benjamin McQueen filed this account for Crikey late last week from the Middle East …
In Syria, it appears that the balance has shifted but the basic dynamic still remains. Bashar al-Assad remains in firm control of the armed forces, with no high level or mass low-level defections. The opposition on the ground have lost their strongholds of Homs and Idlib, at least for the time being and the SNC remains an irrelevancy for those in the country.
Conversations I have had in Beirut over the past week all come back to the point that Assad has strengthened his hand in the past weeks. Those members of the international community agitating for official armed intervention in Syria have been able to muster little more than threats.
I qualify official as money and arms from the Saudis and Qatar, I am told, have increased significantly in recent weeks. This has gone to particular groups involved in the Homs uprising with links in the north of Lebanon, themselves currently involved in confrontations with Hezbollah and, by extension, the Lebanese state itself.
Damascus allowed the Arab League monitors back into the country. This effectively means that the current bargaining position of the so-called Friends of Syria group is now weaker than it was three months ago.
Indeed, Assad has become emboldened to the extent that he is now reportedly rotating Sunni-only units through the “front line” rather than keeping them on menial duties as was previously the case where he reserved the fighting for mixed or Alawi-only units.
All of this leads people here to think that Assad has, at least, won this round. This is a perception that is hard to dispute. However, this is far from the final acts of this tragic sequence of events. The “basic dynamic” I referred to above is one where the regime is too strong to fall but too compromised to survive.
This has been apparent since the early days of the fighting, with the very fact that the Syrian regime had to deploy the armed forces a sign that their vital (read non-coercive) mechanisms of control had broken down. Thus, the regime can win battles, but the war itself will result in a fundamental change to the political landscape in the country.
Even the most ardent supporters of the regime in Lebanon that I have spoken to recognise that the spiral of violence will only be broken by some form of political bargain that will reorganise the ruling structures in the country. As to what that is, this is the key question.
Talk at the moment is of amnesties and guarantees of future security for key personnel in the regime, particularly high level military, intelligence, and political officers. There may also be an effort to distance the regime from the Ba’ath Party structure.
While a divorce between the Ba’ath and Assad may seem fanciful, there is a chance that this may happen. The regime may take a lesson here from the Algerian experience where the military regime effectively dumped the FLN after the 1992 coup and outbreak of war. Ironically, in the most recent elections, the FLN emerged as the largest party in the Algerian parliament.
While one should not read too much into the recent reforms by the Syrian regime, the removal of the single-party restriction may yet signal a slow but evident move by the regime to exit. The party may take much of the heat during transition, while the elites evade prosecution and keep much of their wealth intact.
None of this sheds much light on what may come following these changes, assuming they happen. At the moment, it is impossible to tell. There is no real unity among the opposition, as has been well documented. Their ideologies, allegiances, goals, and tactics are incredibly diverse. The SNC may benefit from a political process, but their lack of domestic roots will ultimately see them wither.
This leaves the disparate groups involved in armed unrest, civil unrest, criminality, and everything in between. Those involved in the Homs uprising will not be courted by the government due to the violence of the encounter as well as the layers of historic antagonism between the elites in Damascus and the much-maligned Homsis.
What one can deduce is that the regime will keep fighting, if for no other reason than to strengthen its bargaining hand when the inevitable negotiation draws close. Who else will be at the table, this remains to be seen.
*Dr Benjamin MacQueen is a senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University