al-Kammouneh camp in the aftermath of the airstrike (photo c/o The Guardian)
If (or rather when), as seems likely, it is confirmed that last Thursday's airstrike upon al-Kammouneh refugee camp near Sarmada, Syria, was the work of Assad's forces, the shape of the Syrian situation will be shifted definitively. A refugee camp constitutes no material gains, no strategic advantage - and to target one represents a shift away from oppositional combat towards generalised destruction. An attack can no longer be called warfare when it has no concrete objective and is carried out not against an armed enemy or even on contested territory, but upon a group of destitute, broken victims of actual warfare.
The people killed, injured and bereft by the airstrike are impartial, impotent bystanders - not of benefit or detriment to either side, but running from the weapons of both. The mentality of this strike, and the lesson we can take from it, is more sinister even than indiscriminate carpet bomb attacks and intentional strikes on hospitals in rebel-held territory, subscribing to a mentality of "my enemy's doctor is also my enemy" - both in breach of the international laws governing armed conflict. The government is now actively targeting and obliterating civilian victims. Those people who were previously dismissed callously as collateral damage have become an active target. Which leaves the only conclusion that the idea behind the strikes was either to kill gratuitously, or to spread terror and disseminate the message that no one is safe, anywhere in the country - the very motor of terrorism.
Assad is the master terrorist. His ideology: absolute power; his greatest weapon: the State.
Bashar al Assad
Even the strategy of these attacks echoes, uncomfortably closely, that employed in the Daesh (IS, ISIS, ISIL) bomb attacks on Zavantem airport (Brussels) in March. This strike came at the end of a week's intense bombing campaign on nearby Aleppo, pushing more residents towards local refugee camps, including this one - thereby accumulating a maximum number of victims before launching the assault. By comparison, in the Zavantem attack, a smaller explosion was detonated inside the airport, sending people running towards the exit - a funnel. Predicting this, a second bomber was waiting by the door with a larger explosion to cause maximum damage to the bottleneck of people fleeing the first. This 'trap and bombard' tactic is alarming both in its cold-blooded malice, and in its notable recent employers. Is Assad taking his lead from Daesh?
Daesh fighters march through the streets
The relationship between the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, while openly acknowledged in the region, is not widely appreciated by Western countries. Daesh is one of a multitude of Islamic militant groups formed in the early days of the Syrian revolution, when international news was focused on Assad's crimes against his own people. To create a global distraction, and to legitimise his use of armed force by 'poisoning' the rebel movement, Assad released hundreds of terror prisoners. Not realising that they were pawns in his plot, many of these terrorists took up arms to take revenge on Assad, imbuing the revolution with the jihadist nuance he desired.
Daesh soon became the biggest of these groups, and both they and the regime concentrated their efforts on eliminating other - mainly moderate - rebel factions, preparing for a binary situation in which, in the words of a senior Western diplomat specialising in the Syrian civil war, "[the government] know[s] that if it comes to choosing between the black flag [of ISIS] and Damascus, the international community will choose Damascus... It will do whatever it takes to devalue the opposition, even if that means strengthening ISIS." Not because the regime presents the lesser threat to the Syrian people, but because its brand of terrorism stays safely within the confines of the country and doesn't threaten the rest of us. It is a statistic that I have used before, but one that needs to be repeated until it is widely known: for every person killed in Syria by Daesh, seven are killed by the government. Almost none of these are Daesh fighters.
The current situation of Daesh threats and atrocities dominating Western media suits Assad well; a prominent Syrian businessman notes that "the more powerful ISIS grows, the more useful they are to the regime." Not to mention all the oil and gas that the government buys from ISIS, and the electricity they sell back to them, evidence suggests that this trade extends even to human lives; the American journalist James Foley, beheaded by Daesh in August 2014, was initially arrested by government forces in a part of the country not yet touched by the group. A year later, the video of his execution by Daesh fighter 'Jihadi John' was released. (Incidentally, the regime issued a statement claiming that Foley had been arrested and "sold" to Daesh by the Free Syrian Army - another tactic to undermine the strongest player of the secular opposition.)
The government is in no way endeavouring to quell or even slow Daesh. In 2014, just 6% of regime attacks were on ISIS targets, while over 90% targeted non-ISIS opposition. The businessman explains: "If the regime were serious about getting rid of ISIS, they would have bombed Raqqa by now. Instead they bomb other cities, where the FSA [Free Syrian Army] is strong." Meanwhile, Daesh has worked out where its interests lie and adjusted its sights from fighting the regime to fighting other opposition groups, and fairy godmother Russia has stepped in, grounding US aircraft supporting moderate rebels - all contributing to pave the way for Assad's ideal binary conflict scenario.
al-Kammouneh camp after the strike (photo c/o The Guardian)
So Syria is a country under the control of not one, but two major terrorist organisations, Daesh and the State, siding together to undermine their mutual enemy - moderate opposition groups striving for a peaceful, democratic future Syria. This state terrorism is a force to which Europe and the West are party. Firstly because there are Western nations which believe that defeating Daesh is the be-all-and-end-all and are willing to 'discuss' Assad's position; although the truth is that, with Assad in power, there will be no defeat of Daesh, whom he endorses and supports. Secondly, and more specifically pertinent, the EU cannot absolve itself of responsibility for the victims of Assad's attack on a refugee camp kilometres from the Turkish border. By acting as the driving cog in a growing global chain of closed borders, Europe is encouraging the trapping of Syrian refugees within the confines of the comprehensively unsafe country.
Europe's entry in March into a callous deal with Turkey, commodifying human lives to use as bartering chips, is a tacit approval of their decision to close and fiercely guard their border with Syria, violently pushing back anyone trying to escape the warzone. There will almost certainly be people in al-Kammouneh camp who have tried to enter Turkey and been pushed back, or managed to enter and be deported - and without a doubt, many people would have left had they not known the border to be closed. As this is a country to which we, as Europe, are sending people back, it is conceivable that someone killed or injured in Thursday's attack had, in fact, reached Europe. But as their life wasn't worth our protection, off we sent them back to Turkey, and from there - who knows? Who even cares?
If there is any question whatsoever of a person who has reached European soil with the intention of claiming asylum ending up back in Syria against their will, it is not just our moral responsibility, but our legal obligation under the Geneva convention to give them safe refuge. Given that Turkey is known to deport hundreds of Syrians weekly, this necessitates the cessation of deportations from the EU to Turkey, which should never have been classified as a 'Safe Third Country' - and never would have been before this new age of xenophobic and egocentric isolationist European politics. Leading by example, the EU has forfeited any capacity to criticise border closures or unsafe deportations by other countries. Europe has given up its role as a protector and defender of human rights.
Two clear conclusions can be drawn from Thursday's al-Kammouneh airstrike: politically, anyone considering the continuation of Assad's 'presidency' must immediately re-evaluate. And humanistically, refugee camps within Syria can no longer be deemed safe or adequate places for people to stay. Given that they were the last sanctuary, after hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure have been systematically targeted for some time, it must be agreed that Syrian refugees, as a matter of urgency, must be considered at risk anywhere in the country and granted free egress from it. If the EU is determined to pursue its legally dubious and morally deplorable deal with Turkey, it must use this relationship to demand that Turkey allow this egress across its border. The EU must once again lead by example, but this time a positive example; retracing its steps, to reverse the domino border closures that have trapped people in Syria where they live as constant targets of a terrorist state.
If you're interested in reading more on this topic, these are a few articles recommended to me by a Syrian friend that I found insightful and useful in the writing of this piece: