The massacre in Syria over the past weekend was expected, given the scheduled visit of UN envoy Kofi Annan. Opposition figures in Syria realize that such visits draw global attention and boost the pressure on Western governments to come up with a solution. Hence, during such visits the rebels aim to escalate the violence and raise the cruelty level, in order to provoke a brutal response.
In this case too, the armed groups associated with the "Syrian opposition" initiated the provocation that led to the horrific massacre. Their aim was again to provoke a brutal response, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the Assad regime, which is killing its own citizens, while scoring more points in the PR war against it.
Meanwhile, guerilla warfare continues. The rebels are not a homogenous group, but are united in their effort to draw external military intervention that would topple the Assad regime on their behalf. Hence, they are interested in creating a situation reminiscent of Libya, where the brutal tactics utilized by Muammar Gaddafi’s men against residents of Misarta ultimately led to NATO intervention and to Gaddafi’s fall.
The absurd is that Assad’s regime is aware of the rebels’ intention, yet still does not change its murderous modus operandi and continues to play into their hands. The Syrian use of power is based on two principles: First, what isn’t achieved with firepower will be achieved with greater firepower. Second, murderous, indiscriminate retaliation against the Sunni population aimed at deterring Sunni rebels.
Instead of fighting armed rebel groups, Assad’s military commanders engage in what’s known as "static warfare" – that is, bombardment using tanks, artillery and air power. The Syrian army’s utilization of heavy mortars is particularly lethal: This is a highly inaccurate weapon, yet the destruction and death it sows in poorly built residential areas is immense. Even those who take cover at home are not immune to the large pieces shrapnel created by these mortar shells.
Revenge for poisoning bid
The terrorizing deterrent effect is complemented by the Shabiha; members of this armed militia, which is loyal to the Baath party and to the regime, enter homes and kill at short range. The main master of these tactics is Assef Shawkat, the vice president and Assad’s brother-in-law. Up until recently, Shawkat served as Syria’s intelligence chief. The rebels attempted to assassinate him recently by poisoning his food, while also poisoning the rest of Assad’s war cabinet.
The poisoning bid failed, yet there should be no doubt about it – the wild response of Assad’s security forces against civilians included a significant component of revenge for the assassination attempt – again, because of the Alawite regime’s desire to deter the rebels.
At this time it’s easy to realize and see that armed Syrian rebel groups and the Assad regime are engaged in an ongoing PR war in the global theater. What’s terrible is that both sides are managing this war via and at the expense of non-combatants, including defenseless children and women. The opposition “sacrifices” them through provocations meant to elicit war crimes that undermine the regime’s legitimacy, while the regime hurts civilians in order to deter the rebels by threatening their families.
Yet despite everything, this PR war has not produced the desired results for any of the sides, because the Syria clash is in fact an active front of a wider regional confrontation. This clash pits the "Sunni front," led by Arab states and Turkey, which support the Sunni rebels, against the “Shiite front,” led by Iran and Hezbollah, which support Syria’s Alawite regime.
The Assad regime also enjoys unconditional Russian backing in the international theater. Russia views Syria as a vital asset, a strategic regional outpost and an economic and political client. As long as these are the conditions and rules of play in the global arena, the Syrian clash will continue, with the Assad regime fluctuating but not collapsing. The massacres shall continue as well.
In this context, it’s interesting to note that the way Syria’s warring sides make use of the civilian population is different than the "usage" undertaken by Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations operating in the Gaza Strip, as well as Hezbollah, use civilians as a "human shield." They do so mostly because they know well that Israel and the IDF will make a great effort not to harm non-combatants, either on moral grounds or because of Israeli concerns about facing global condemnation.
In Syria, on the other hand, the civilian population is not used as a human shield, but rather, as cannon fodder. Both kinds of tactics are morally reprehensible, yet the difference is not only semantic and lies in the essence: What’s happening in Syria constitutes a different level of brutality and cruelty that justifies, and in fact necessitates, international military intervention that would put an end to the horrific acts we are seeing on both sides.