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Interview: The Significance Of Syria's Deadly Bombing


General Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad, who was killed in the Damascus bombing on July 18.

General Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad, who was killed in the Damascus bombing on July 18.

Syrian state television says a suicide bomber has killed three top officials in Damascus. RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel spoke to Fabrice Balanche, director of the French research center Gremmo and an expert on Syria, about the significance of the attack.

RFE/RL: What does the bombing -- targeting a meeting of cabinet ministers and senior security officials in Damascus -- tell us about the capabilities of the rebels?
Fabrice Balanche: It shows that the rebels have some logistic help from abroad and they are trying to kill the heart of the Syrian regime like this, because they are not able to fight against the official army of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. So, they try to destroy the head of the government, of the military government, to demoralize the Syrian Army.

It [also] shows that there is complicity inside the Syrian government on behalf of the opposition that stays in the government to destroy it from the inside.
RFE/RL: Why do you say today's bombing shows the rebels have help from abroad?
Balanche: The Syrian rebels are not able to use this kind of bomb. But we know that since probably September 2011 you have some jihadists from Al-Qaeda or other Islamist groups in Syria and they carry out bombings like you have each month in Iraq, [with] the same technology, the same method.
RFE/RL: How big a loss for the Syrian government are the men killed in the bombing, including Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat?
Balanche: The defense minister, Daoud Rajha, was not a very important person. In Syria, the minister of defense is never an important figure because the president does not want to have competition from this man. But you also have Assef Shawkat, who is President Assad's brother-in-law and is a member of the Assad family, so that is a very important loss for the Syrian government.
RFE/RL: How do you describe the conflict in Syria today? Is the country in a civil war?
Balanche: Syria has been in civil war since about September 2011, when the peaceful protests were replaced by fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Army. At this time, in Homs for example, the fighting started between Sunni and Alawite, and people were killed because they were Alawite or because they were Sunni and when we see massacres like in Houla it is also civil war and specifically a sectarian civil war.
It is not sectarian civil war everywhere in Syria. For example, in the east of Syria, it is just Sunni people, but you have pro-Assad and anti-Assad groups who are fighting for political reasons and for tribal reasons. You also have problems between the Kurdish and Arab people in the north of Syria, where a civil war has not started but it could start very quickly if Syria entered into a chaotic situation.
RFE/RL: Are there any good-faith efforts among the opposing sides to cooperate with international efforts to stop the killing?
Balanche: No, there is no effort for peace from the government or from the rebels. The [international envoy Kofi] Annan plan was not used by either side. People are locked in a fight to the death and [they see] no other option. There is no negotiating, just the military option until victory comes for one or the other.

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