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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

It Is Civil War in Syria

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Political scientists and linguists can debate the exact meaning of the term civil war and when it is in place, but in Syria both regime and opposition know the die is cast. The Syrian civil war started this week, when elements of the "Free Syria Army" launched a daring and successful attack on an installation of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence in a suburb of Damascus. There was another, less publicized attack, in a village near the city of Hammah.

The leadership of the Sunni defectors army officially declared the establishment of a military council which will lead the armed struggle against what is left of the Assad regime. So, now the opposition has political and military organs representing the Syrian masses who rose up against "their" government.

Some clarifications are in place here. First, it is important to understand the role of the Air Force Intelligence. This is just one of the ten or so security and intelligence agencies existing in Ba'athist Syria in service of the state oppression machine, but maybe the most important one. They are the arm that is in charge of fighting the unstoppable wave of defections and they are engaged in terror activities against political rivals of the regime, for example the assassination of the prominent Kurdish activist Mashaal Tamo in Qamishli, just some few weeks ago.

In the past, this notorious service was involved in the Hindawi affair, an attempt in 1986 to plant a bomb aboard an EL-AL plane in London. This operation was directly commanded by General Muhammad Khouly, a close Alawite confidant of Hafiz Assad. The British government under Margaret Thatcher cut off its diplomatic relations with Syria in the aftermath of the botched plot.

For those who wonder why an intelligence service of the Air Force should be involved in this kind of activities, the answer is that the regime always is afraid that planes could be used against the presidential palace, so the actual operational command of the Air Force is in the hands of Alawite intelligence officers. No flights and combat sorties can take place without their prior approval. This has been the reality in the Assad kingdom of terror for so many years, but it is all changing now, and in a dramatic way. The resort to counter-violence on the part of the rebels was inevitable, due to the incessant systematic killing of innocent civilians by the regime Security forces and the lack of external military intervention. It became clear that the mass demonstrations, while displaying an amazing degree of motivation and courage on the part of the populace, could not, by themselves, bring down a determined regime bent on the use of unmitigated force against civilians.

The mass defections from the army reflect, therefore, the understandable instinct of self-defense of the Sunni population in face of the atrocities committed by the minority regime. The announcement of the command of the new rebel military council emphasizes exactly that, and the need to protect the private property of the civilians. This is a clear message to the business community, among which there are still some pockets of support for the regime. The rebels increasing attacks unleashed some expected, as well as unexpected reactions. The propaganda machine in Damascus was quick to point out, that the regime maintains all along that it confronts "armed gangs", rather than spontaneous manifestations of peaceful civilian protests. This is a line which enables the regime to justify the indiscriminate killings in the streets.

The unexpected reaction came from the State Department, whose spokesperson said that violence by the opposition plays to the hands of the Assad regime. Really? Sometimes it seems that the reactions of State are an automatic textbook exercise, regardless of the merits of the case in hand. Clearly, the Obama administration has a definite sense of the murderous nature of the Assad regime, and they espouse this sense in public almost on a daily basis. Therefore, a statement which can, even if it is not the intention, create moral equivalence between tormentors and victims is unhelpful. But even bizarre statements cannot change the course of events on the ground. The Army of Free Syria will continue its operations, backed by the mass demonstrations of the Syrian people, the regime will continue the brute repression, and this is a civil war.

The Arab world, represented by the Arab League, Turkey and the West may not directly interfere militarily, but they will intensify their support for the rebels. All this means, that the regime of Bashar Assad is not going to survive. The end is near, and the'' day after '' looms large.