It has now been a year and half since the revolution broke out in Syria. After that much time, most citizens of the world have gone back to their regular programming. This is how international crises work. The urgency builds as the crisis escalates–and then when the crisis shows few signs of being resolved, the urgency paradoxically wanes. This may not be true of policymakers or journalists, but it certainly is true of the everyday citizen. For those who don’t spend much time focused on international politics (there are bills to pay, jobs to find, etc.), the motto might very well be, “Another day, another clash in Syria.”
Well, for those of you who do not follow the Syria situation closely, you might want to start doing so. News stories coming out of Syria report that an explosion (perhaps a suicide bomb, perhaps carried out by a bodyguard) has killed four high level officials from the Syrian government and military. Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha and his deputy, Assef Shawkat, were the first to be confirmed dead (Shawkat is also Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law). Hasan Turkmani, al-Assad’s assistant VP and security advisor, as well as the Interior Minister, have also been added to the list. The Free Syrian Army is one of two groups to have claimed responsibility for the attack.
Though accounts of the attack are still developing, it is becoming clear that today could mark a turning point in the revolution (though Emile Hokayem at IISS says is an acceleration of the regime’s “downward spiral” rather than a shift in the status quo). The attack happened in the heart of Damascus, which has been relatively quiet throughout much of the uprising. What’s even more important is that the attack occurred during a meeting of the officials inside a highly secured building. If accounts that the attack was carried out by a bodyguard are true, al-Assad’s regime will have to face the fact that the revolution has now spread to insiders.
The retaliation will likely be bloody. Damascus has already seen increased violence over the last few days; any hopes of fewer clashes are now shattered. The rebels still remain woefully incapable of taking on the tanks and helicopters of al-Assad’s army. And yet, this recent attack spells a certain victory for the rebel groups. There have been reports of mass defections from the army. And the importance of this moment is not lost on foreign ears. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in response to the attack that the situation in Syria “is rapidly spinning out of control…By ignoring appeals from the international community…the loss of lives has only increased…[It is] extremely important that the international community…bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what’s right and step down.”
By many accounts, the violence in Syria can now be classified as a civil war. So, what does this civil war in Syria mean for international security?
First of all, just as Syria’s violence quickly drew the attention of the international community, it also drew the attention of terrorist groups operating in the Middle East. The most obvious example would be al-Qaeda, but recent violence–including the use of suicide attacks–has shown that a multitude of terrorist elements do have a part to play in the revolution. Bashar al-Assad isn’t completely incorrect when he says his government is besieged by terrorist attacks. But “terrorist groups” are not synonymous with “rebel groups” (and an ex-Syrian diplomat has also hinted that al-Assad has himself capitalized on the support of terrorist elements). The Syrian National Council (which runs the paramilitary group the Free Syrian Army) is widely seen as the focal point of the Syrian opposition and is considered a legitimate opposition group fighting for all Syrian people. There is a large difference between the tactics and vision of legitimate opposition groups and those of terrorist organizations, who seek to exploit chaos for sectarian gains. However, as the violence increases, terrorist groups are greater able to manipulate the situation. Case in point: a Lebanese Islamist radical was able to declare himself the “Emir of Homs,” and it took weeks before the Free Syrian Army could remove him from “power.” A protracted civil war could help radical terrorist groups gain an even greater foothold in the country–and as demonstrated by Pakistan and Afghanistan, once radical elements gain a foothold, it becomes extremely difficult to flush them out.
Second of all, the media has only now begun to address the role that Syria’s chemical weapons could play in this conflict. Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, though it is unclear as of yet whether the regime would be willing to use the weapons in an attack. Currently, the most likely threat comes from terrorist groups–again. In Syria’s heightened state of violence, a theft of chemical weapons by non-state actors is possible. If Syria’s regime were to weaken or disappear without any new government and military to take over, the theft of those weapons becomes even more likely. In fact, it would take at least 75,000 US ground troops to secure these weapons in the event of a regime collapse. The White House recently warned the Syrian regime of the responsibility it has to safeguard these weapons. In addition, Syria refused to allow IAEA inspection of the remains of a suspected nuclear reactor destroyed in 2007. Any nuclear materials left over from that reactor would be highly susceptible to theft and proliferation in the case of a weakened or collapsed regime. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have long expressed an interest in procurement of nuclear material (for use in nuclear weapons). Syria could be and may already be the target of actors eager to proliferate these materials.
And these are just the international security concerns. The security concerns within Syria–the threats against Syrian civilians–are tenfold what they are for other nations and citizenries. If anything, the international community should be moved by the plight of the Syrian people, and governments should be making good on the paradigm of “responsibility to protect.” Unfortunately, international action just isn’t that easy to bring about. Some actors–mainly Russia–are still wary of robust international intervention. And until the international security concerns escalate–which might well be likely, considering today’s attack–the international community will continue to lack the political will and consensus needed to intervene beyond a few hundred peacekeepers.
UPDATES (as of July 24)
Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar, who was initially reported to have been killed, did survive the attack, sustaining injuries. National Security Bureau chief Hisham Ikhtiar died two days after the attack from his wounds, keeping the toll at four. Profiles of all the victims can be found here. As predicted, fighting has escalated in Damascus, as well as in Aleppo, another urban center that had seen relatively little fighting until now.