Judging from my Twitterfeed this morning, there are two versions of the bombings outside security service buildings in Damascus today:
- The regime says it was Al Qaeda, or maybe the army deserters, or maybe just all those terrorists who have been attacking the state for months. Whatever it was, clearly that is where the regime wants the Arab League monitors, an advance party for which has just arrived in Damascus, to focus their attention. No need to go to Idlib or Daraa, where they might see Syrian army forces obliterating civilians.
- The protesters say it was the regime, giving itself an excuse to crack down. Al Qaeda is just a convenient suspect. The Europeans and Americans can hardly object to a crackdown aimed at their sworn enemy. Nobody wants Al Qaeda winning in Syria. But what really happened is that the secret services committed the act, or allowed it to be committed.
We may never know the truth–the Syrians have a habit of quickly cleaning up crime scenes, before any serious forensic evidence can be gathered.
I share the natural inclination to disbelieve the regime, which has established for itself a clear and consistent record of lying about everything. But it may not matter: these bombings represent an enormous escalation of the level and kind of violence in Syria. It will encourage both regime and protesters to ratchet up their rhetoric and intensify the physical conflict. While I might hope that will cause massive defections from the Syrian army, I think it far more likely it will reduce the numbers of people willing to go to the streets and improve the regime’s chances of repressing the demonstrations. The regime will target Sunni Islamists. Some of the Sunnis will respond by targeting Allawites, Christians and other regime loyalists. From here it is easy to go in the direction of sectarian civil war, no matter who was responsible for this morning’s bombings.
That’s where the Arab League observers come in. I share the blogosphere’s disappointment yesterday upon discovering that its leader is a Sudanese general who has served in Darfur and has an impeccable pedigree of loyalty to his country’s president, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. But like it or not, the observers are the best bet for protecting the demonstrators in Syria, if they can get out of Damascus and communicate freely. It won’t take more than a couple of reports confirming the regime’s violence against unarmed civilians to enrage the international community.
What good will that do? We seem to be on the verge (or not) of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, at long last. That would represent an end to Moscow’s protection of Bashar al Assad. I don’t believe that will necessarily cause him to fall right away, but he really cannot survive on his own forever. The Russians however will want what the Americans wanted in Egypt: a transition guided by people in the military who will maintain the country’s friendship with Moscow. The Syrian protesters seem smart enough to me not to follow the Egyptians down that dead end.
But first they have to find a way to avoid that civil war.