The Syrian Conflict: Confusion Central

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The popular uprising against Syria’s brutal regime that appears to be evolving towards full-blown civil war is of course serious business—deadly serious, as the reported 1,110 lives claimed in nearly three months of clashes demonstrate. But it’s also become a major source of head scratching among international observers. Whether it’s a consequence of Syrian governmental action to shut foreign journalists out of the country, or just a byproduct of the surging chaos there, events in and around Syria are often just as confusing as they are dramatic. And while this post in no way seeks to minimize the enormous human and political stakes involved in the ongoing struggle, it will take time to detail some of the befuddlement the uprising is producing.

The insular, clannish, secretive nature of the Syrian regime, is of course, the main cause of the confusion. Not only is nobody entirely sure how it operates or who calls what shots in various areas, but its efforts to keep foreign journalists shut out of the nation while choking off information leaking out of the country via social forums only adds to the uncertainty. News is often riven with speculation, and information is often battled over by tweeting and blogging citizens and government officials who’d be at home at Soviet-era Radio Moscow. This week alone provided a rash of doubt-encased news.Early on, reports recounted rumored defections by Syrian military units to the popular front—information that’s been both unconfirmed independently, and contested by the nation’s authorities. Those were followed by partially substantiated accounts indicating government troops are en route to the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour to massacre protesters blamed for the deaths of scores of loyalist soldiers there (information that sparked an exodus of Syrian refugees heading for Turkey). Those accounts appeared to lend credence to speculation in other media that President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly unleashing his brother, Maher, who heads elite military units and carries great weight within Syria’s intelligence services. It’s all very worrying and sinister—but for now, mostly unconfirmed.

However, those disturbing reports were it for European nations—led by the UK and France—to renew efforts within the United Nations Wednesday to pass a resolution to condemn Syria for violent suppression of the anti-regime protests. Yet even in arguing the urgency of passing a UN motion “condemning the repression and demanding accountability and humanitarian action” in Syria, comments by British Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t mask the likelihood of the resolution having limited coercive impact, while also being at risk of rejection by Russia and China.

Those nations say they want to avoid adopting measures with sufficient teeth to force Damascus to halt its thuggish behavior; they claim getting too rough with the Syrian regime will prove counter-productive to goals of convincing Damascus to negotiate a collectively acceptable resolution to the crisis. But Moscow and Beijing also obviously don’t want to crack any doors that might allow Western nations to eventually intervene militarily or otherwise wade into the Syrian conflict as they were ultimately able to in Libya.

But if Russia and China seem as intent on limiting Western action on Syria, European countries and NATO members aren’t any too keen on direct involvement in Syria anyway. Indeed, they appear intent on trying to gain passage of a modest, mostly verbal UN condemnation of Syria–and don’t seem ready to do much beyond scolding potential holdouts to obtain it. “If anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience,” Cameron said Wednesday, probably not freezing the blood of Russian and Chinese authorities in their veins.

But officials wrangling over possible passage of a UN resolution that doesn’t seem destined to achieve anything concrete on the Syrian conflict weren’t the only diplomats running confusingly in place this week. On Tuesday, French news channel France 24 broadcast an audio interview with Syria’s ambassador to Paris, Lamia Chakkour, in which she resigned her post in protest of her government’s brutal repression of pro-democracy demonstrators. Soon after, however, rival French news channel BFM TV broadcast its video interview with Chakkour, in which she denied ever having resigned her position, and confirmed her continued status as Syrian ambassador. France 24 initially stood by its interview as authentic—backed by a Reuters wire saying Chakkour’s resignation had been confirmed by an official Syrian embassy release. By late Wednesday, however, France 24 was acknowledging it may indeed have been victim of a hoax, possibly from anti-regime militants seeking to inspire the kind of multiple defections by Syrian officials (or appearances such) that have seriously weakened the Libyan government over time.

Was the channel punked—or did Chakkour resign, only to back-pedal under political pressure from Damascus? Does it really matter? In the end, Chakkour remained at her post as a member and defender of the Syrian regime, with the reports of her protest resignation only adding to the ambient perplexity her nation’s conflict continues to create.

And it doesn’t end there (ah no, we’re not through with you yet). Because the Syrian regime has been so effective in keeping foreign journalists out of the country, the global media has relied heavily on bloggers from within the country for information of what’s going on there. Yet now even those citizen reporters—and their very existence—are now a source of puzzlement. Reports have multiplied since Monday about the abduction of an influential Syrian-American blogger calling herself “Gay Girl In Damascus”. Presumably resentful of her international recognition—and communication with reporters, human rights groups, and interested observers abroad—Syrian police purportedly arrested and detained the blogger Monday, sparking fears and rumors of her arrest, mistreatment, or worse. That unleashed an outcry from her fans and backers—and, almost as quickly, claims “Gay Girl In Damascus” is a hoax, and its author a fictional character.

Evidence and testimony both supporting the blogger’s authenticity and denouncing her as a fiction and have multiplied in recent days, leaving the question of her existence, legal status, and safety unresolved. Perhaps not surprisingly, that dueling versions of that breaking news story produced the rather risible overlap of two items on Australian website ABC News–with one featuring the headline “Female Blogger Kidnapped In Syria”, while the other warned “Doubts Emerge Over Syrian Blogger’s Disappearance”.

No knock on ABC News there: it’s hardly the only observer of events in and around Syria who isn’t fully clear on just what exactly is going on all the time. In fact, about the only thing for certain to anyone any more is that beyond the fog and mystification the Syrian conflict produces at its margins, it remains a deadly serious struggle for the future of the nation—and perhaps region—that the entire world is struggling to follow.