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On Point

Syria's Civil War: React, He Said


by Austin Bay
April 11, 2012

This past Tuesday, April 10, as the ceasefire arranged by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan supposedly commenced, Syrian rebels posted a short video on the Internet that they claimed showed mortar shells fired by forces loyal to dictator Bashir Assad striking the city of Homs. I watched part of the herky-jerky clip. Near the end, I heard someone, likely the cameraman, appealing to God.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime claimed it complied with Annan's agreement by withdrawing forces from urban areas as required, and would fully end hostilities later this week.

The Homs video, provided by the rebel Syrian Media Council, might show combat prior to Tuesday, and thus shade the truth. However, during the 14 months of struggle, the rebels have established a track record for reasonable accuracy, in contrast to the dictatorship's trail of lies.

Unsurprisingly, as Tuesday progressed, it appeared the Assad regime observed ceasefire conditions in areas where it deemed a ceasefire useful, but ignored Annan's deal in neighborhood killing fields where it decided mortar shells and tank guns served the dictatorship's long-term goal of survival.

The Syrian National Council, an umbrella group trying to coordinate the fractured rebel movement, said it would not accept a partial ceasefire. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman called the Syrian government's claim that it was implementing Annan's plan a blatant lie "indicative of a feeling of impunity against which the international community absolutely has to react to."

"React," he said. "Absolutely," said he.

In August 2011, the Arab League reacted. The league condemned the Assad regime's violence. That same month, U.S. President Barack Obama said, "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President (Bashir) Assad to step aside." In September, Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby met with Assad and reported that he "showed me a series of measures taken by the Syrian government that focused on national dialogue."

In September 2011, the Syrian civilian death was around 3,000.

On January 31, Elaraby appeared at the U.N. to continue to react. He assured the Security Council that the Arab League (to quote U.N. minutes) "was not calling for military intervention or regime change -- the latter being a matter for the Syrian people to decide -- but it was advocating "concrete economic pressure so that the Syrian regime might realize that it is imperative to meet the demands of its people."

In late January, the estimated death toll hit 6,500. As March ended, it neared 10,000. On April Fool's Day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "We think Assad must go. The sooner the better for everyone concerned." From April 3 to April 10, the Syrian National Council estimated that Assad's minions killed 100 people a day.

Despite repeated ceasefire proposals and calls for dialogue, despite various reactions by the international community, all of them (so far) irresolute, Syria's civil war continues unabated.

Why? Because the Assad regime believes it is locked in a kill or be killed war with the widespread, resilient, yet deeply fragmented rebel opposition. Despite the regime's powerful sources of external support, which include Iran (arms, money and security advisers), Russia (weapons and diplomatic friction) and China (diplomatic friction), the rebels have demonstrated they are prepared to die in order to destroy the despised dictatorship -- in other words, regime change.

Assad uses negotiations to buy time to pursue ever-more-violent repression. Yet every day more Syrian government and army officials defect to the rebels. Defection is an absolute reaction. If Assad defeats the rebellion, defectors and their families have two rather absolute choices -- execution or exile.

The Syrian civil war is thus a death match, and a death match is not negotiable. A meaningful "absolute reaction" by NATO and its Arab allies must account for this harsh fact. Syrian rebels don't need Kofi Annan or Obama administration platitudes, they need weapons, and NATO and Arab leaders with the guts to sever Assad's Iranian supply line.

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