Friday, 20 July 2012

20 July 2012

My tip for the day: be wary of tipping points.

Yes, what happened in Damascus on Wednesday, when some of President Assad's most senior security advisers were killed in circumstances that are still far from clear, did mark a hugely significant moment in the 17-month-long anti-Assad uprising.

But was it a tipping point? Well, in the admirably succinct words of Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding: "I think we are seeing the beginning of the middle of the end of the middle … with the tipping point round the corner."

On the other hand, it is in the nature of a tipping point that you don't realise you've got there until it's too late -- one minute you're upright, the next minute you've tipped.

So no, we don't know if the Assad regime has now reached such a point -- but don't be too surprised if it suddenly tumbles, because if -- or when -- it does tip, it'll tip quickly. After all, who expected Tripoli to fall as quickly as it did last August?

I imagine the name of Assef Shawkat did not ring any immediate bells with you when you heard that he was one of those who died in Wednesday's attack. Yet in Syria, he was widely known and usually regarded as one of the key men in Assad's inner circle, a man whose name came up whenever nefarious deeds were alleged.

(He was named in 2005 by UN investigators as one of the main suspects in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri -- and was the subject of EU and US sanctions as a key Assad loyalist once the uprising began in February of last year.)

Intriguingly, he was originally reported to have died in May after having been poisoned by rebels -- two other men also said to have been poisoned later surfaced, but Shawkat didn't. So maybe we're entitled to suspend judgement at least on some of what is said to have happened on Wednesday.

For example: the attack was reported to have been the work of a rebel suicide bomber, yet few people living in the area said they heard the sound of an explosion and there were no external signs of damage to the national security building in which the men are said to have died.

It may, or may not, also be relevant that Shawkat's relationship with the Assad family was not always harmonious. He divorced his first wife to marry Bashar al-Assad's older sister Bushra, a match that was said to have been bitterly opposed both by Bashar's father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, and Bashar's older brother Basil, who died in a car crash in 1994.

He was also reported some years ago to have been shot and wounded by Bashar's younger brother Maher, who according to some reports yesterday was among those injured in Wednesday's attack.

Complicated? Fraid so. Rumours and conspiracy theories are rife -- outside Damascus there are reports of mass army defections, and in the capital, people are said to have been stocking up on food and other essential supplies for the first time since the uprising began. An estimated 20,000 people are reported to have fled across the border into Lebanon in the 24 hours following Wednesday's attack.

According to state television reports in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the explosion targetted a meeting of Cabinet ministers and security officials. Now, I may have an over-active imagination, but it set me thinking about the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944 (the so-called "20 July plot"), when a German army officer by the name of Claus von Stauffenberg took a bomb concealed in a briefcase into a meeting with Hitler and other top Nazi officials. (Four people were killed when he detonated the bomb, but Hitler himself escaped serious injury. Stauffenberg and three co-conspirators were executed hours later.)

Did something similar happen in Damascus on Wednesday? Was the attack the work of an insider trying to eliminate those closest to Assad? Perhaps even to kill Assad himself? Or was it the work of the people closest to Assad, to eliminate people they no longer regarded as trust-worthy? Were Shawkat and the other victims suspected of plotting against Assad? 

Lots of questions, but no answers. And I shall say nothing about the latest shenanigans at the UN, for the very good reason that they amounted to precisely nothing. Russia and China did not, and will not, sign up to anything they regard as a dastardly plot by Western and Gulf Arab governments (plus Turkey) to overthrow an ally.

It probably doesn't matter much, because all the signs are that events on the ground have left the UN's diplo-inanities far behind, mired in a swamp of irrelevance.

Instead, I'll leave the last word to General Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), and thus the holder of what must surely have been one of the least desirable jobs on earth.

As he bowed out yesterday, he said: "My love for the people of this country and my desire for them to regain peace are endless …

"There is no lasting hope in the military solution. I, as a soldier, know more than many, that the decision in favour of peace is harder than that of war. But I have learned through many years of military practice that it is still better to make that hard choice; to choose peace, even if you can win the war. For it is the fabric of a society that will be deeply damaged by war, and greatly enhanced by the prevalence of peace."

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