Patrick Cockburn writes: Parts of Syria are convulsed by civil war, while in other areas life continues almost as normal. At the same moment as more than 30 children had their throats cut and dozens of civilians were killed by shelling in Houla in central Syria on Friday, people in Damascus were picnicking on the slopes of Mount Qassioun, overlooking the capital.
Fighting can be intense, but it is also sporadic, even in highly contested areas. Over the past week, insurgents, many of them defectors from the army, have been fighting to capture Rastan, a strategically placed town on the road running north from Homs. During the same period, militants in the small city of Douma, an opposition stronghold on the outskirts of Damascus, were involved in UN mediation over access to hospitals, the release of detainees and the restoration of services. Soldiers manning sand-bagged checkpoints surrounding Douma’s narrow streets, where shops and markets were reopening, looked bored and relaxed.
Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, returns to Damascus in the next couple of days to attempt to give more substance to the so-called ceasefire that began on 12 April. This now looks like a critical visit, as the Houla slaughter makes Syria once again the centre of international attention and a possible target for some form of foreign intervention.
The ceasefire was only sporadically implemented from the beginning. The government has always had more interest in its successful implementation, which would stabilise its authority, than the insurgents, who need to keep the pot of rebellion boiling. The UN monitoring team says that during the ceasefire “the level of offensive military operations by the government significantly decreased” while there has been “an increase in militant attacks and targeted killings”. But any credit the Syrian government might be hoping for in showing restraint will disappear if the latest atrocities are confirmed.
Not that anybody in Syria expects a quick solution to the crisis in which a mosaic of different interests and factions are battling to control the country. “My picture of Syrian society is that 30 per cent of people are militantly against the government, 30 per cent are for them, and 40 per cent don’t like anybody very much,” said a Christian in Damascus. A diplomat said people are much more polarised than six months ago into pro-government, anti-government and “what I term the anti-anti government, the people who dislike the regime, but equally fear the opposition”. The government has been exploiting this by targeting its non-violent opponents “so they can say it is a choice between us and guys with long beards. People want change, but they are frightened it might be for the worse”. [Continue reading…]