The Free Syrian Army has led the clamour of a growing list of opposition groups to claim responsibility for the killing of Defence Minister Daoud Rajiha, his deputy and President Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, and the regime’s point man responding to the uprising Hassan Turkmani on Wednesday as part of its attempt to, in its words, “destroy the pillars and symbols of the regime”.
While it will not prompt the long-awaited chapter VII resolution authorising the use of force in the Security Council, the attacks have raised the stakes considerably. Damascus is now fully embroiled in the civil war (yes, it has been a civil war for some months), with open fighting across the sprawling neighbourhoods of the Syrian capital.
The US and EU struggled to contain their enthusiasm for the demise of these senior regime figures, claiming that it showed the Assad regime had “lost control”, with his removal now only a matter of time. However, where July 18 may be seen as a turning point in the conflict, there is still much to be written on this bloody chapter of Syrian history.
Indeed, elements of the situation in Syria are beginning to look more and more like that of Algeria in the 1990s, sans the democratic experiment that preceded that country’s collapse into civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives. In particular, this is evident in the blurred line between official and unofficial state violence and international activity that worked to exacerbate the conflict.
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Algeria’s “Dirty War” of the 1990s saw the government and a constantly changing Islamist opposition exchange allegations of atrocities against civilians. The government employed local security forces (read: thugs) to outsource the worst of its “security operations” while elements of the armed opposition targeted civilians not actively opposed to the regime as enemies, justifying brutal acts of violence. On both sides, the chaos of the conflict was exploited to pursue extortion, settle long-running disputes, and engage in other forms of criminality that tore the social fabric of the country apart.
At the international level, there was less attention paid to the conflict in Algeria than to the violence currently wracking Syria, but behind-the-scenes support from the French and, later, the US governments for the regime in Algiers coupled with private funds for the opposition arriving from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf helped perpetuate the violence.
The lesson one may draw from this comparison is that, regardless of what happens at the international level, it will ultimately be a sideshow to what is happening on the streets of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and across Syria’s villages and towns. The UN is about to wind up its mission, and the Russians have dug in their heels on any chapter VII authorisation for the use of force after seeming to shift position through May and June.
The only substantial international impacts will stem from money and supplies fed to the regime via Moscow and Tehran and the opposition via Riyadh and Doha. These impacts are helping to maintain the cycle of violence in the country, and drive any form of negotiated settlement beyond reach.
Indeed, it is difficult to argue that a negotiated political settlement was ever possible given the pace with which this conflict degenerated, the diffuse nature of the opposition, and the zero-sum view held by all that this conflict will mean total defeat or total victory.
The death of Rajiha, Shawkat and Turmani will certainly cripple the regime strategically, but it still holds the loyalty of the vast majority of the armed forces as well as a large section of the population. This support may not be genuine affection for Baath Party rule, but more reflective of a deep apprehension of what the alternative may be. This is where another point of comparison with the Algerian example is telling. While there was popular anger toward the regime for its role in violence against civilians, the length and brutality of this war led to an overwhelming sense of resignation by the end of the 1990s, a hope that, more than anything, the violence would stop.
The regime won the kinetic battle, eventually carving away the more threatening elements of the armed opposition (the remainder went on to form the rather nebulous al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who spend their time kidnapping European tourists to fund unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the government in Mauritania). It then engaged in a re-branding exercise, divorcing itself from the single-party National Liberation Front and installing an elder statesman in Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president.
This was not a political solution as such, with continued resentment for the mass amnesties offered to the insurgents and even more so for the way in which those behind the office of President exonerated themselves. Instead, it was an exploitation of a war weary citizenry with superficial democratic reforms as window dressing.
With Damascus backing its military capacity against the various opposition groups, we may well see a similar dynamic play itself out in Syria. This will mean more pain for the Syrian people for some time.
*Dr Benjamin MacQueen is senior lecturer in politics and deputy director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC) at Monash University