Syria crisis: border tribes could finish off Assad regime

The Red Cross's declaration that Syria is in a state of civil war is an important milestone as government control starts to weaken

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) avoids the words "civil war". It prefers the blander "non-international armed conflict", but the meaning is essentially the same, and the ICRC's declaration that it has spread across Syria is an important milestone.

According to Sean Maguire, the organisation's spokesman in the UK, the criteria for the ICRC statement are the intensity of the violence, the level of organisation of the armed opposition, and the duration of the fighting.

"It is not everywhere in Syria and it's not all the time, but it has become much more widespread. It is an extension of the conflict rather than necessarily an escalation," Maguire said.

As a consequence, the protections given to civilians and detainees offered by the Geneva conventions apply to the whole of Syria, although the targeting of residential areas was previously covered by international humanitarian law. In effect, what could be previously prosecuted as "crimes against humanity" can now be prosecuted as "war crimes". The point is largely moot, however, as the international criminal court cannot open an investigation into what is happening in Syria without a UN security council mandate, and Russia and China have blocked any such move.

The ICRC designation reflects the extent to which the Assad regime's counter-insurgency is backfiring. Every time it sends troops to quell opposition in a city, district or village, its blunderbuss use of artillery and air power has claimed more and more innocent lives, alienating one slice of society after another.

The intensity of fighting in Damascus reached a new high on Monday, with plumes of black smoke rising above the capital and tanks in suburban streets. Bbut the fate of Syria may also be decided in the remoter governorates, away from the camera, where the ground is shifting, perhaps decisively.

Hassan Hassan, a Syrian columnist at UAE-based the National newspaper, described those shifts in his home region along the Iraqi border as a way of explaining the defection last week of the ambassador to Baghdad, Nawaf al-Fares. At the beginning of the revolt last year, Hassan says, Fares armed his clansmen in the region, part of the Egaidat confederation, and organised them against other Sunni tribes who had joined the insurgency.

His position, however, became untenable last month, when the government mounted an offensive on his home town of Deir ez-Zour, allegedly killing 350 people. "The tribes are aware their stance today will affect their reputations for generations to come," Hassan wrote. "As a leader of a prominent tribe, Mr Al Fares's loyalty to the regime is secondary to his loyalty to the tribe and its place in the region. The news of his defection has already been received well by many tribal leaders. The defection of Fares, a longtime loyalist, shows the regime has lost its ability to turn the tribes against each other, and use them to maintain relative calm. It is yet another example of how the regime has become its own enemy,"

The conservative Gulf monarchies, who are determined to bring Assad down and are widely reported to be supplying arms to the Free Syrian Army, have long identified these tribal allegiances as the key to the regime's survival, and have gone about courting them. It is no accident Fares has made his new base in Qatar.

"The regime is desperate – at all levels they know it is dead, it is a matter of time," Fares said on al-Jazeera over the weekend.

The question now is how much time. Fares said the relatives he left behind were not being targeted by military interrogators. But the regime still has fear at its disposal, and that can be a powerful glue.


Julian Borger

The GuardianTramp

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