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Syria: the tipping point?

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Robin Lustig | 10:25 UK time, Friday, 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."


  • Comment number 1.

    Perhaps a minor detail --perhaps not?


    --offering an alternative to the Russians may sweeten the downfall of the regime ?

  • Comment number 2.

    Deadly bomb attack on President Bashar Al-Assad’s senior cabinet ministers leaves me with little doubt that Western intelligence was involved. Among the victims were defence minister Daoud Rajiha, his deputy & president’s brother-in-law Assef Shaukat - killed when a suicide bomber reportedly set off a powerful explosive device. Third fatality was Hassan Turkomani, country’s deputy VP & Assad’s chief of crisis management. Wounded included Hisham Ikhtiar, Director of the National Security Bureau & Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar. This was deadliest attack yet on ASSAD'S INNER CIRCLE.
    Allegedly, 2 groups claimed responsibility - Syrian Free Army & some little jihadi outfit called "Lord of the Martyrs Brigade". But the knowledge of who would be where, etc. points WITHOUT A DOUBT IN MY MIND to crucial Western military support in executing the strike.

  • Comment number 3.

    Over 16 months, armed opposition groups in Syria have been transformed from disorganised rabble, hit-&-run rabble into what is now formidable insurrection capable of mounting bomb/mortar attacks in the capital of Damascus. During March/early April (until the Kofi Annan peace plan was announced in mid-April) Syrian Govt forces had made significant gains in routing the rabble from strongholds in Homs & other northern towns. Since the Annan Plan, the rabble has been HUGELY CHANGED in military capability. These groups never even pretended to implement the Annan six-point plan; rather, they appeared to be given support by American, British & French leaders in their rejection of any political process to find a peace settlement. Western Govts have demanded Assad step down as a prerequisite for any political transition, thus green-lighting further RABBLE violence. The surge in opposition DOES NOT HAVE ANY INTERNAL POPULAR SYRIAN CITIZEN SUPPORT. It can be totally traced to Western-backed so-called "Friends of Syria", which met in Istanbul on 1 April & at which the west pledged $100M in funding for armed opposition groups. With what authority? The world seems to just turn its face away and allow the west to play its murderous games.

  • Comment number 4.

    Latest deadly attack at very heart of Syrian Govt screams: high-level intelligence; it is result of increased involvement of Western & Turkish Special Forces with their increased flow of weapons into Syria from Turkey (funded by the Western-allied Arab sheikdoms). Since beginning of this year, there have been a string of sophisticated, lethal car bombs in Damascus and Syria’s second city, Aleppo. On 10 May, twin bombs outside the Syrian military intelligence headquarters claimed 55 lives. The involvement of suicide bombers also points to the Saudi & Qatari-backed Sunni extremists, operating out of Libya, Iraq & Lebanon. These groups have a long history of liaison with Western intelligence agencies going back to Soviet-era Afghanistan & more recently in NATO toppling of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
    In the aftermath of the Cabinet meeting explosion, there are reports of fierce gun battles across the capital between Syrian security forces & the opposition rabble. There were unconfirmed reports of an explosive attack near parliament buildings & on elite army barracks responsible for guarding the presidential palace. Now just try to tell me western intelligence was not involved. By what right? Why does the world just turn its face?

  • Comment number 5.

    Armed rabble has gained greater military power & intelligence to take their fight to very heart Syrian Gov't admin. Their confidence in what they call "Operation Damascus Volcano", yells that these groups have received external assurance, supplies & weapons.
    Meanwhile, Washington & London step have stepped up political pressure on Russia & China to back a UN Security Council resolution - perhaps, just to legalize what they are doing illegally . Speaking on a visit to Israel only two days ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Govt of Bashar Assad “cannot survive”. Earlier, she had provoked international shock when she issued a warning to Russia & China that they would “pay a price” for not backing Western efforts to put tougher sanctions on Damascus. Russia’s FM, Sergei Lavrov objected to use of such threatening language & said that the Western powers were blatantly trying to blackmail Moscow into adopting their adversarial position towards Syria.
    Following the killing of Syria’s Cabinet members, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague reacted immediately to renew his pressure on Russia & China. He said: “All such events increase the arguments for a strong & decisive resolution from the United Nations.” Somewhat knowingly, Hague added that Syria was threatened with “chaos and collapse”. Since May 24, several massacres in villages across Syria by Western-backed rabble have so far failed to dislodge Russia & China’s support for Damascus.
    What's wrong with the international community? Is it really blind, deaf & dumb - or just pretending?

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm no fan of Syria or al-Assad, but it's his country and he has the right, indeed the duty, to defend his citizens from foreign aggression.

    Syrians were given the opportunity to vote in a constitutional referendum, which the West chose to ignore.

    I repeat, I am not a fan of President Assad, but from where do politicians in the West derive the authority to speak on behalf of the Syrian people?

  • Comment number 7.

    #6 Scotch Git

    -- Can we assume you have followed (even a little) Syrian affairs since the death of his father ?

    -- I awaited ´with bated breath´ for the changes he promised to make -- as the Syrian constitution was changed to suit his age.

    -- A Civil War breaking out after decades of oppression has now brought Human Rights into play -- when now the murdering and torture is becoming more democratic -- decades too late.

    --any ulterior motives for your seemingly illogical standpoint ?

  • Comment number 8.

    Three things must be said in reponse to this provocative act by the Syrian terrorist opposition forces. First of all despite its boldness (like your Count von Stauffenberg analogy) it is an act of terrorism, nothing more. Second, the growing violence as BluesBerry noted may well be a reflection of the increasingly sophisticated stepped-up support that is coming in from the outside powers that are trying to topple the Assad government. Third, it is by no means clear that the Syrian people as a whole have dropped their support of and are now turning against the Assad government. In fact as the UNDP has noted the increased hardship and poverty within Syria due to the UN sanctions has not notedly diminished support for Assad.

  • Comment number 9.



    Suspicious, you are. Maybe the "opposition forces" just wanna get their hands on Saddam Hussein's W.M.D.

  • Comment number 10.

    #9 Scotch Git

    -and that is enough reason to damn them to more of the same --on a ´maybe´?

    -- and give the tyrants the benefit of your doubts -- with still your ulterior motives remaining undiscussed ?

  • Comment number 11.

    Nobody can really know what is going to happen, but when capital cities are attacked it tends to shake the confidence of dictatorships quite a bit. People start defecting in larger numbers etc.

    A recent BBC report on the Syrian conflict touched on the issues of war crimes (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18849362%29. The article stated the following...

    "Under the Geneva Conventions, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks on medical personnel or the destruction of basic services like water or electricity are forbidden and can be prosecuted as war crimes."

    I commend the BBC on it's knowledge of the Geneva conventions. However, I have to ask, was this knowledge only gained in the last day or so? This surely must be the case, otherwise the BBC would have been labelling many past military actions of western countries as war crimes.

    e.g. The USAF's (et al) systematic destruction of the infrastructure of Iraq.
    NATO's targeting of electricity supplies in Serbia in 1999.

    These acts are acknowledged in the BBC's own articles (as shown below), but where are the BBC articles labelling them as war crimes? Or even discussing the possibility that they may be war crimes?

    "Iraq's power stations were bombed during the first Gulf War. They were then left to crumble under international sanctions, before being bombed again during the invasion of 2003."

    "Because power stations were bombed, there was no electricity and soon no water in the taps either as Iraqi pumping stations and water treatment plants virtually stopped functioning."

    "Nato bombers have again hit power facilities in Serbia, causing shortages of electricity and water throughout the country."

    Sometimes they even admit to targeting electricity, while denying targeting water supplies.
    "Nato spokesman Peter Daniels said the closing of Yugoslav water pumping stations was a consequence of Nato's targeting of the electricity supply network. "

    "Serbs have been advised to conserve electricity supplies following the widespread disruption caused by Nato's attack on Yugoslavia's power system. "

    "Nato air raids knocked out the electricity supply to most of Yugoslavia overnight. It was seven hours before power returned to central Belgrade."

    The reason of course is that BBC journalism (like most journalism) is seldom objective. The BBC generally do not like to criticise our own (or allies) armed forces.

    So, for example, the Russian siege of Grozy is treated like a crime with BBC Journalists like Robert Parsons allowed to write angry and emotive articles (e.g. "Grozny's ruined lives" https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/668080.stm ).

    In contrast, the US siege of Fallujah is treated in a dispassionate matter of fact way within a "we are in the right to be doing this" framework ("Fixing the Problem of Fallujah" https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3989639.stm ).

    Given that nearly all news sources are biased, it is important to get your news from as many different sources as possible. e.g. The BBC is happy to strongly criticise the actions of Russian forces but not British forces. Russia Today is happy to criticise western forces but not its own etc etc. By looking at opposingly biased news sites you can get a better picture of what's going on. I quite like Aljazeera's bias. It's biased in favour of the struggle of ordinary people and is well worth a look.

  • Comment number 12.



    Ulterior motives? Moi? I'm hurt!

    I just wonder why Western politicians think it is a good idea to take sides in what has been described as a "Civil War."

    If you recall, I asked the same questions when NATO jets were active in Libya.

  • Comment number 13.

    #12 Scotch Git

    -- I recall no remark worrying about Gadaffi´s WMD falling into ´rebel´hands?

    --why this time ?

    --do I stand corrected ?

  • Comment number 14.

    Gadaffi had W.M.D.?


    Where are they now?

  • Comment number 15.

  • Comment number 16.

    One thing is clear --this is a hell of a mess.

    For over 30 years there has been no local solutions to problems --and now the risk is a fire storm. This has nothing to do with Russia or China -- restrictions on the Syrian govt. by the ´West´ (even with Russia and China on board) is unlikely to contain the unfolding events.

    --we are living in interesting times.

  • Comment number 17.


    Given that he has what appears to be an effective delivery system, (i.e. ballistic missiles), one wonders what President Assad would do with these chemical agents were he pushed into a corner.

  • Comment number 18.

    #11 Scotch Git

    "....one wonders what President Assad would do with these chemical agents were he pushed into a corner."

    Even if he is not pushed into a corner --all he has to do is ´lob´one into his Golan Heights --and the party begins.

    --think the scenario through.

  • Comment number 19.

    Some folk are way ahead of you.

  • Comment number 20.

    #19 Scotch Git

    -- Way ahead ?

    -- they only share the same ideas and logic.

    -- "I'm no fan of Syria or al-Assad, but it's his country and he has the right, indeed the duty, to defend his citizens from foreign aggression."

    -- your ´flip-flopping´makes me feel like a pancake.

  • Comment number 21.

    The successful assasination of Bashar al-Assad's top security and military deputies in the past week was followed by another dramatic, crucial vote to pass resolutions in the UN Security Council condemning the Syrian government and pressuring two of the five permanent members, Russia and China, to accede to provisions that would permit the use of violent force (UN Chapter 7) to topple the Assad regime. The occasion of the resolution was based on the need to renew the UN observer group (UNSMIS) mandate to continue monitoring of the conflict within Syria. Both Russia and China however held firm against authorizing a Chapter 7 provision. The UN monitoring mission was approved but only with a 30 day extension. The disappointment with the veto against authorizing Chapter 7 intervention was palpable as US ambassador to the UN, Susan E. Rice, said the Security Council had "utterly failed" Syria and she pledged that the US will now instead work "with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council" to pressure Assad to step down. The desperation of the opposition to topple the Assad government has been obvious for at least a year now as numerous meetings of the principal exile group, the Syrian National Council (or SNC), with its outside supporting powers, the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey can attest to. The question now becomes whether the events of the past week, have weakened the Assad regime to the point where without direct external military intervention, the existing internal armed opposition groups have sufficient force to carry out the endgame of the current government. Because of the lack of approval to use Chapter 7 legal authorization for forceful overthrow of the Syrian government, the US reasserted at the weekend that it will not authorize supplying lethal aid to the internal opposition forces. As before however other nations primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and possibly Turkey will continue supplying weapons and ammunition to the rebel groups inside Syria. But in an ominous new development, Syrian officials, began moving parts of its huge stockpile of chemical weapons out of storage, drawing stern warnings from US military officials that the WMD must not be used against rebel forces or they would face unstated consequences. Some US intelligence officers later tried to sofen these warnings by saying that the movements were likely a precautionary strategy to prevent the deadly WMD from falling into the wrong hands. Those of us familiar with the warnings about Iraqi WMD which were made prior to the 2003 invasion nevertheless are feeling a bit unsettled by these new developments in the Syrian situation.

  • Comment number 22.

    I hope The World Tonight is safe from the crass decision on The World Today.

  • Comment number 23.

    #22 Kit Green

    -- since the ´Young Turks´took over the BBC with the birth of the Internet --nothing has been safe or sacred.

    -- They were given everything on a ´silver plate´ and then threw the ´family treasures´bit by bit-- onto the rubbish heap at the back of Bush House.

    -- Today programming is not only constant repeats, but also constant repeats of telling which repeats are being repeated.

    -- This appears to be aimed at the ´Internet Generation´-- whose memory retention and concentration has obviously been judged by the BBC ´Whiz Kids´--to be in the Millisecond range.

  • Comment number 24.

    dont go to olympics games in london. there is so much rasizm.you can go back in coffin.

  • Comment number 25.

    The foregoing comments are mostly acute, but perhaps unappreciated.
    The BBC is conducting Foreign Office propaganda, and the FO is acting as a servant for Hillary and the Israelis. Thus, the USA and the UK are fostering war crimes. Would it make any difference if the public understood this?

  • Comment number 26.

    #24 martin

    --Sorry --can´t agree.

    --The choreography of the opening was really well done.

    -- However the attempt of the (American) Jewish Lobby and Israel to politicize the Olympics and thus hoping to split the world into pro and anti-Israeli( jewish) fractions at this difficult time (Syria and Iran) --should be condemned in no uncertain terms--- for its usefulness.

  • Comment number 27.

    Why did the British (?) military carry the Olympic flag ?

    -- any historical reasons ?

  • Comment number 28.


    In 8 out of 10 rehearsals, G4S raised the Union Flag upside down.

    If you want the job done properly, give it to the Armed Forces.


    "In a letter to International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, Jibril Rajoub said: “Sports are a bridge for love, communication and the spreading of peace between nations and should not be used for divisiveness and the spread of racism,” according to the Times of Israel, citing the media watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch."

    Not like 1972, then.

  • Comment number 29.

    P.S. Jacques Rogge is a Belgian Count.

  • Comment number 30.

    #28 Scotch Git

    The difficulties of raising the British flag correctly could have been easily overcome by simply following the enclosed instructions of ´this edge up --when attaching to the pole´. Why an army was required baffles me.

    Another trick would have been marking a toggle green -- and as a memory aid, tell them to think of planting a tree -- green to the top.

    The Games were already opened, as again the British armed forces in uniform was required to raise the Olympic flag --hardly a demilitarization -- of an already ´missile protected´ venue -- that act was both unnecessary and in bad taste considering those countries and their participants who have suffered at their hands.

    As you have avoided taking a stance on the attempted sabotage of the Games by the actions of some Jewish and Israeli groups (and pro-Israel politicians) -- can I assume you were in agreement with them ?

    Their success would have destroyed and wasted the effort the UK has undertaken to show itself to the world in a positive light --by encouraging an immediate boycott.

  • Comment number 31.

    Sabotage? What websites have you been visiting?

  • Comment number 32.

  • Comment number 33.

    I see you haven't lost that wacky sense of humour.

    A minute's silence was requested to honour the memory of ten Olympic athletes and an Olympic coach who were abducted in an Olympic village and subsequently murdered forty years ago. The silence has been requested at every Olympic Games since.

    It is only the refusal of the International Olympic Committee to grant this request that has politicised the issue.

    Perhaps it would be more appropriate to have a minute's silence to mark the demise of the Olympic Ideal; if, indeed, such a thing ever really existed.

  • Comment number 34.

    #33 Scotch Git

    "I see you haven't lost that wacky sense of humour."

    Munich 1972

    " Israel responded to the killings with Operation Spring of Youth and Operation Wrath of God, during which Palestinians suspected of involvement in the massacre were systematically tracked down and killed by Israeli intelligence and special forces. The Israeli operations killed one innocent in Norway and four passersby in Lebanon, with 18 others injured during the killing of Ali Hassan Salameh.

    .....During the memorial service, the Olympic Flag was flown at half-staff, along with the flags of most of the other competing nations at the request of Willy Brandt. Ten Arab nations objected to their flags being lowered to honor murdered Israelis; their flags were restored to the tops of their flagpoles almost immediately.

    ...On 21 July 1973, in the so-called Lillehammer affair, a team of Mossad agents murdered Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan man unrelated to the Munich attack, in Lillehammer, Norway,

    --In the wake of the hostage-taking, competition was suspended for the first time in modern Olympic history. On 6 September, a memorial service attended by 80,000 spectators and 3,000 athletes was held in the Olympic Stadium.

    .. Brundage stated "The games must go on, and we must... and we must continue our efforts to keep them clean, pure and honest." The decision was endorsed by the Israeli government and Israeli Olympic team chef de mission Shmuel Lalkin.

    ..On 8 September, Israeli planes bombed ten PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon in response to the massacre, killing an estimated 200 people.

    Much has flowed under the bridge since then --and it has not been water.

    -- My accusation stands.

  • Comment number 35.

    We are hearing much about the Syrian cities, but nothing about what is happening in the villages and countryside.

    -- are they safer or are their populations also fleeing ?

  • Comment number 36.

    Robert Moods words are really the crux here, aren't they? It is humans and their lives and rights that matter in the end, which should not be thought of as a game of chess among inhumane parties. In my opinion, that is when awareness from peoples around the world really counts, as their outrage may force political leaders in their respective countries to pursue with some more dignity/honesty the true benefit of the Syrian innocent people.

    Some local Syrian academics, witnessing first-hand suffering on the ground in Syrian, from their positions amid young students and unfolding troubles on Syria' streets, have posted a new article on the following log:


    It increases awareness of the daily inhumanity experiences by locals, to the international readership. Many observe that the Syrian suffering is slipping too easily (disgracefully) from the minds of their fellow citizens of the world. News cover latest developments, but such experiences and logs are mind-openers, at the personal readership level, to how it is like to live in Syria today.
    The academics contributing had to keep their full IDs anonymous for the safety of their relatives in Syria (the regime has been known for abusing or even killing people who may have a dissident cousin!)

  • Comment number 37.

    #6 is straight forward and true, there is no illogic.

    The Syrian situation has and is being deliberately created by a cabal led by the unfortunate Hillary Clinton.

    A country that was peaceful and secular is being destroyed by the machinations of aggressors seeking to take up again the "Great Game".

  • Comment number 38.


    "Ten Arab nations objected to their flags being lowered to honor murdered Israelis; their flags were restored to the tops of their flagpoles almost immediately."

    You forgot the Soviet Union, but I'll let it slide.

    You're welcome!

  • Comment number 39.

    #38 Scotch Git

    - all that glitters is not ´Gold´

  • Comment number 40.

    #36 The peoples of the world must be informed.

    Has the BBC mentioned the former SAS personnel being paid by the UK to train infiltrators and terrorists in Iraq to create havoc in Syria?

    All such facts are vital to inform the public. Surely, even BBC employees must know that suppresing such facts is dishonest and has terrible consequences.


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