Fifteen months and 15,000 dead: Syria’s tipping point?

By Merryn Johnson

In a bloody coincidence with Frontline’s First Wednesday talk about the divisive issue of international intervention in Syria, yet another massacre of women, children, civilians has been charged at the Assad regime.

Less than a fortnight after the Houla massacre in the Homs province of Syria, in which 108 people were killed, opposition activist report that a further 78 people were killed on June 6 by pro-government forces in Qubair and Maarzaf in the Hama province.

Media reports increasingly talk about Syria’s ‘tipping point’ – but last night’s talk illustrated the variety of perspectives on this contentious fulcrum.

Chaired by the Guardian’s Ian Black, the panel began by explaining their own perspective on the country’s current crisis. Charles Glass, recently returned from Syria, began by telling the  audience about the striking polarity in opinions he heard advocated by ordinary Syrians – “either dramatically for or dramatically against the regime.”

Rim Turkmani, founder of secular opposition group Building the Syrian State, said that the Western powers had contributed to such polarity, whilst underestimating the complexities of Syrian society. She said that all too often, external powers had ignored “how to help Syrians”, focusing instead on “how to harm the regime”.

Christopher Phillips, of Queen Mary’s University reminded the audience that ‘we’ the international community are already involved in the Syrian conflict as the past year has seen the externalisation of conflict and a reliance on the outside world for resolution.

Ian Black introduced the final panelist, Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme, as “openly interventionist”. Shehadi qualified this by saying that at the moment the international powers are paralysed because they are falling into the trap of Bashar al-Assad’s mind game – that it’s either him or civil war.

The evening quickly moved to audience questions: What kind of deal can really be done? What kind of intervention can occur? What is the role of the external actors? But the issue to which the panellist kept returning was raised by Dr Ghada Karmi: Foreign media coverage has too often relied upon “so-called spokesmen for the opposition without any critical analysis of … who they are”.

As yet the opposition groups in Syria have remained, in Shehadi’s words, “leaderless”. Perhaps it is this lack of leadership, organisation, and the presentation of a viable alternative to the Assad regime which has delayed the ‘tipping point’. Is this the regime narrative succeeding over the opposition?

Shehadi said:

“There is an information war… The revolution started as a non-violent, peaceful opposition to the regime… and now it’s perceived as a violent civil war with bad leadership. The perception now is something the regime is very comfortable with. The regime can do violent civil war for the next ten years – it will win and flourish… The regime is winning the mind game and most of what you see in the press is buying that regime narrative.”

More questions included the threats of ethnic cleansing and of sectarianism, the pivotal role of Russia, and the failing Anan plan. Jonathan Steele asked about another tipping point: “At what point do you think the opposition will be willing to talk to the regime?”

It was an evening that posed far more questions than it answered. Despite some cautious optimism that negotiations and resolutions should not be discredited and dismissed as futile, the talk’s conclusion echoed Ian Black’s own question: “Fifteen months and 15,000 dead; can [that compromise] still happen?”

Watch the full event here: