The Crisis in Syria: No Immunity for Bystanders

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France Television / Reuters

French journalist Gilles Jacquier, seen in this undated picture released by France Television, was among several people killed in the central Syrian city of Homs on Jan. 11, 2012

The Syrian Addounia TV channel has broadcast a video it said was filmed in the aftermath of an attack on the government-escorted media trip to Homs, a city that has borne much of the brunt of the regime's wrath because of continuing antigovernment protests. The film crew was on the roof of a building when an explosion seems to catch them off guard. The camera pans down, showing a man on the ground with thick dark blood seeping from him. "He's dead, he's dead!" a male voice, presumably that of the cameraman says. "Somebody move him!" Footage from street level shows several victims carried into minivans and yellow taxis. The camera pans along a wide street. A man off-camera reminds people that there are foreigners nearby, part of a delegation. A foreign man, wounded and perhaps dead, is seen lying across the back of a yellow taxi. A foreign woman, holding a camera, screams hysterically as she looks inside the taxi. "She's a journalist," a Syrian man says, while another calls for an ambulance. A pool of thick bright red blood stains the pavement.

As gory and dramatic as the footage may be, there were two immediate interpretations of what it meant. To the Syrian regime, it would once again serve as proof that the opposition was made up of, at least in part, terrorists. The opposition, however, raised the question: Did the Syrian regime orchestrate the Wednesday grenade attack on the foreign journalists, leaving more than half a dozen people dead, including a Frenchman?

The group of some 15 journalists was on a government-supervised trip. (It's virtually impossible for journalists entering the country legally to report without government minders.) Gilles Jacquier, 43, was killed after the group was allegedly hit by several grenades, according to a reporter who was also on the media trip to Homs. Jacquier worked for France 2 TV. The exact circumstances of the attack, which also claimed the lives of at least eight Syrians, according to the SANA state news agency, and wounded a Dutch journalist, remain unclear. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé quickly called for full clarification of what he called "this odious act." The Twitterverse was alight with conspiratorial claims that the regime orchestrated the bloodbath to warn the foreign media to stay away.

It would not be the first time that President Bashar Assad's ruthless regime has been suspected of creating its own gory facts on the ground. Three suicide bombings, one on Friday and a double attack just minutes apart two weeks before that, were described by the Syrian opposition as the regime's handiwork. It claimed that the devastating blasts in the capital Damascus — a security bastion which is home to all 18 or so of Syria's security and intelligence agencies, as well as the military — were meant to sway the small team of Arab League monitors that has been in the country since Dec. 26.

The Arab League observers have been tasked with ascertaining if the Syrian government has complied with a pan-Arab deal that requires it to withdraw its tanks and troops from cities and towns, cease violence, free political detainees and start a real dialogue with the opposition. It doesn't take much to see that almost none of that has happened. The U.N. says the Damascus government has killed at least 400 of its own people in the two weeks since the Arab League representatives entered the country.

On Tuesday, a member of the mission quit, describing it as a "farce" and accusing the Syrian regime of committing war crimes. "I withdrew because I found myself serving the regime, and not part of an independent observer group," Anwar Malek told al-Jazeera satellite channel. "I saw charred and skinned bodies that had been tortured," said Malek, still dressed in the fluorescent orange vests the monitors have donned inside Syria. "From time to time, we would see a person killed by a sniper," he said. "I have seen it with my own eyes. I could not shed my humanity in such situations and claim independence and objectivity."

The observers have come under attack, verbally and — in the past few days — physically. The Arab League has said that its monitors were recently "lightly" attacked by proregime elements in the northwestern port city of Latakia and in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, as well as "from elements considered to be members of the opposition in other areas," the league's secretary-general Nabil el-Araby said this week.

Given that, it perhaps comes as little surprise that the league announced on Wednesday that it would not add to its Syrian team of 165 members "until the situation calms down," hamstringing efforts to find out what is really going on. It is in many ways a tacit acknowledgement of the failure of the league's so-called protocol agreement between the pan-Arab body and Damascus. It's difficult to see how this plan, the league's best hope of finding an "Arab solution" to the Syrian crisis, can be accomplished if its people aren't on the ground in numbers.

On Tuesday, Assad lambasted the league in an almost two-hour speech, in which he also blamed a vast media conspiracy, terrorists and U.S. journalist Barbara Walters for the turmoil in his country and how it is perceived internationally. He followed that up with a rare public appearance on Wednesday alongside his wife Asma and their three children at a proregime rally in the capital. The President once again railed against the "foreign conspiracies" and rampaging "terrorists." "These are the final phases of the conspiracy, and we will make sure that we will stand up victorious," he told the boisterous crowd in Damascus.

The Syrian leader may have reason to think that he's sitting pretty — for now. The Arab League is on the back foot and still hesitant to submit the Syrian crisis to the wider international forum of the U.N. The Syrian opposition is struggling to unite and does not yet seem to be a viable alternative to Assad. Meanwhile, there is a sizable, silent portion of Syrian society that remains on the sidelines, fearful of what may follow Assad. The largely unarmed protest movement, meanwhile, is in danger of choosing to become more militarized. In that way, the Syrian regime may end up getting exactly what it has always claimed to be fighting throughout this 10-month crisis: an armed rebellion.