The July 18 terrorist attack on the headquarters of the security ministry in Damascus took the lives of several high-ranking Syrian government officials and military commanders, including the defense minister, his deputy, the minister of the interior, and the head of the army intelligence department (B. Assad’s son-in-law). Syrian foreign minister Walid al Muallem and director of the counter-espionage agency were hospitalized and reported to be in critical condition. A kamikaze, who evidently served in the defense ministry, delivered a bomb to the building which is sited across the street from the US embassy, and detonated it in the office where the Syrian administration was holding a meeting with the security chiefs. Two groups of insurgents – the Free Syrian Army and Allah’s Brigades – claimed responsibility for the terrorist act which prompted an outpouring of positive emotions from the Itanbul-based Syrian National Council. It must be noted in the context that, pressing for regime change in Syria at any cost, the Syrian opposition leaders who visited Moscow on July 10-11, among them the Council’s president Abdulbaset Sieda and Michael Kilo, the leader of the Free Tribune established in Cairo last year, did subscribe to the Geneva connections. It was fairly clear during the rounds of negotiations in Russia, in one of which I took part, that the only real objective behind the guests’ agenda was to talk Moscow into supporting the course aimed at the ouster of the current administration in Syria. In fact, the envoys of the Syrian National Council admitted coordinating activities with the Free Syrian Army, which, in the light of the recent developments, automatically means complicity in terrorism.
The assassination of key security and government officials came as a heavy blow to Syria, but, contrary to the expectations of those who had planned the attack, did not destabilize the regime in the country. In the wake of the drama, various global media, with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya leading as usual, spilled the news that B. Assad was en route to the airport in an attempt to flee and that the Syrian army servicemen were an mass switching to the side of the opposition. In reality, Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, whom B. Assad appointed as the new defense minister, pledged that the forces under his command would decisively clean the country from the bandit formations, and, indeed, over the past week or so the Syrian army managed to squeeze the insurgents out of the suburbs of Damascus, plus launched several successful raids in the city of Hama and in the regions adjacent to the borders with Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, killing hundreds of guerrillas.
The West’s reaction to the terrorist act was consonant with its wider policy vis-a-vis Syria. Having cursorily condemned terrorism, the diplomacy chiefs of Great Britain, France, and Italy went on to blame the escalation on the Syrian administration and to assert that nothing short of removing president Assad from his post would help defuse the crisis. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he hoped the international community would grow more “aggressive” in its attempts to end the crisis in Syria. In contrast, head of the UN mission Maj. General Robert Mood must be credited with sticking to a balanced position as, voicing his disapproval of the recent terrorist act, he urged both parties to the conflict to abandon violence and to open talks. Russia’ foreign ministry envoy released a strongly worded statement in connection with the terrorist attack, delivered condolences to the families of the victims, and stressed that the perpetrators should be duly punished. The Russian and the US leaders discussed the situation over the phone, the shared view being that the Geneva conventions must be fully observed. A few days ago, respect for the Geneva conventions was similarly expressed by Russian president V. Putin and Turkish premier R. Erdogan when they met in Moscow. Some time earlier, Ankara indicated that, from its perspective, an intervention in Syria would be an acceptable option. Russia confirmed its opposition to any intervention in Syria when the UN Security Council cast ballots over the resolution which was floated by Great Britain. The document, vetoed in concert by Russia and China, suggested sanctions against the Syrian administration and, with a reference to Article 7 of the UN Charter, stated that an intervention in Syria was a possibility. An alternative resolution was eventually passed which reflected a compromise between the Western approach and that taken by Russia and China. It addressed both sides in the Syrian conflict with a call to end violence and extended by a month the mandate of the current UN mission.
A segment of the Russian media makes serious efforts to offer objective and unbiased coverage of what is happening in Syria. Vesti TV channel correspondent A. Popov, for example, presented eyewitness accounts from Syrian citizens that insurgents from the Free Syrian Army took relatives of the residents of a village near Hama hostage and killed some of them to coerce the villagers into firing on a checkpoint of the government forces under the threat that the rest of the hostages would be shot. Russia’ foreign minister S. Lavrov later cited the report in a media briefing.
The July 18 terrorist attack in Damascus marked the opening of a new phase in spiraling Syrian crisis. The opposition groups which claimed responsibility for the blast – the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council which chose to fully back it in the case – showed their a priori aversion to all forms of dialog with the administration and, as a part of the package, demonstrated that they brush off any pertinent international agreements, be it the Geneva conventions or the Kofi Annan plan. The recent terrorist act, along with multiple previous ones, made it clear that the opposition’s goal is to eliminate, politically and physically, the current Syrian leadership, and it is dubious that a wider political agenda can be found behind the insurgency in Syria. Under the circumstances, dialog or more far-reaching moves like the formation of a transitional authority with representatives of the opposition involved are definitely off the table. The only reasonable approach to groups practicing terrorism is that they must either quit terrorist activities and put down arms or be destroyed. Various countries had to clamp down on terrorist groups in the past, as Italy on the Red Brigades in the 1960ies-1970ies, Spain on ETA in the 1980ies-1990ies, France on the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in the 1990ies, Algeria on the Islamic Salvation Front and the Armed Islamic Group in the 1990ies-2000ies and on Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in a still rolling campaign.
The position adopted by Moscow – rejection of intervention, calls for dialog between the administration and the reasonable part of the opposition – is completely adequate. It takes into account the interests of the Syrian nation and also those of Russia. An alternative scenario on the horizon is the partition of Syria along ethnic and religious lines, the seizure of power in the resulting country fragments by radical Muslim groups, with the Syrian arsenals likely turned against Russia, a broader regional destabilization prompting an ever more inclusive international military campaign, and, potentially, a major war fought by Iran, Israel, and Turkey.
The strengthening of the Russian military presence in the region is of key importance at the moment. It would be a timely move to reinforce the military facilities Russia maintains in Syria’s Tartus, perhaps to the point of converting them into a full-scale military base to be used to ensure the permanent Russian military presence in Syria and the wider Mediterranean region… The outcry from the West that will likely follow does not have to be taken close to heart – the US network of military bases spans much of the world, and Washington sells the arrangement as conductive to global democracy. Russia’s protecting its legitimate national interests does not at all promise a replay of the Cold War. The West’s aggressions – against Yugoslavia, Iraq, the Ivory Coast, Libya – follow with increasing frequency, and Moscow needs to build up its military muscles and to safeguard its geopolitical status in order to stay secure and to remain immune to any kind of a “Russian Spring”.